by Umair Haque
July 30, 2018
from Eudaimonia Website
of Human Progress
...and Why it
It's like groundhog day,
The latest such person is Steven Pinker, and it's his, third? fourth? book proclaiming so.
Needless to say, it must be something people feel the need to hear, over and over again, and so it's very much a modern myth:
But from what, exactly?
Probably from the sinking
feeling, that, right about now, the myth is probably about as true
as Snow White being rescued by Prince Charming, which
is to say, not very.
It's not exactly bubbling over with prosperity, whether it's called happiness, sanity, wealth, democracy, or wisdom. If capitalism didn't save America, the most capitalist society in human history - how could it have saved anyone else?
The myth falls apart the very instant we think about it, instead of recite it.
How should we think about "Capitalism! Bro!! It saved the world!!" - aka human progress?
Not by toting up dollars and cents, but thinking of what they really denominate, mean, signify, represent. Just because I'm "richer", doesn't mean much - unless I have genuinely valuable things available to me in the first place. In America, for example, a millionaire can barely afford an organ transplant - but in Europe, everyone can.
Why is that? What does it mean?
It means that capitalism
alone can't be the engine of human progress - because if we really
think about it, instead of recite the tired old myth, we'll quickly
see that humanity's greatest breakthroughs have never come from
capitalism at all.
Guess what else does? The scientific method...
The very first controlled experiment happened in 1753. The industrial revolution depended critically on the very first age of what we'd consider proto "modern" research into the new natural sciences happening at universities, which was then shared and publicized by royal societies.
But that research was only finally taking place because the rudiments of the scientific method were finally laid down,
...after centuries of blind alleys.
It's true that the great
inventors commercialized this research, and built products atop it
- but without sudden, revelatory understandings of the basic laws
of physics, all those contraptions, engines, "gins", pistons,
lightbulbs, plugs, and so on, wouldn't have been built at all.
Even the very first age of what we consider human progress today wasn't about capitalism. It was about public goods.
These three public goods, which in turn depended on others, like,
...were, for the first
time in history, beginning to interweave in sophisticated, delicate,
and complex ways, allowing minds to take great and improbable leaps
into the unknown.
See the same lesson at work... almost precisely?
It wasn't capitalism that gave us these next three great breakthroughs, which have done more for human life than every single Google search or iPhone or Alexa put together. It was public goods again. Only this time, woven together in even more complex ways.
Think of all the public goods that needed to interweave for the discovery of antibiotics to finally happen - it was an even more delicate, complicated dance than in the last wave
Not to mention the stable, prosperous democracy he lived in, a place with roads, bridges, cities, squares to walk and think in.
Do you see how all these
had to weave together, in even more sophisticated, improbable ways,
for this great breakthrough to happen?
...but capitalism simply can't afford them. Only a society can - and probably only a democracy, capable of reinvesting a surplus in itself.
How many centuries of science, knowledge, universities, libraries, roads, royal societies, and democracy were needed for each one of the crucial moments above?
Every great breakthrough should really be seen as the result of centuries of "public good", of,
But capitalism isn't meant to do any of the things in that last sentence. And so when we mythologize it as more than it is, or ever can be, at that precise moment, we fail to learn from history.
We create our own
towering idol - but that idol will fail us when we need it most,
just as in America today, a point I'll return to.
Of course not...
Sir Tim Berners-Lee was doing research on what was then called "hypertext" at CERN - a physics lab in Europe. And there he devised a way for "hypertext" to talk to itself. Voila - the www...
Now let's think of all the public goods that had to interweave.
Just like in the last industrial revolution, a physics lab. A university. Libraries, knowledge, science, and all the stuff of the last two waves, too, roads, bridges, squares, democracy - but this time, also electricity grids, computing power, networks, microchips, and so forth. None of that? No internet.
So by now, in the third
wave of human progress, larger numbers of greater public goods were
interlocking in even more complex and sophisticated ways than ever
before. And without that single breakthrough - no Amazon, Google,
And the tense matters:
A more sophisticated way to say it would probably be:
Progress probably doesn't need "capitalism" at mega-scale anymore, though it will always need entrepreneurs taking bold risks.
But these are in many ways opposites. Improving life today depends on society investing capital directly in people, which means greater and greater public goods , which can weave together in even more sophisticated and improbable ways - healthcare, education, media, finance, precisely so that dance of integrating together all of yesterday's knowledge, learning, insight, wisdom, truth can go on, in new ways, which reach higher heights.
If people were free from "jobs" at "corporations" (which seem to do precisely nothing meaningful for anyone except create allow a tiny number at the top to amass absurd amounts of fictional paper chits called "money"),
We don't know...
But the point is to find
out - and we'll never get there if the old myth is all that we
believe in. We'll end up like America, instead...
But by now, looking at the sad state of America, you should intuitively sense it's just not true.
Having read all the above, you should know what America did wrong, too. What happens when we tell ourselves the old myth, "Wealth! Yay! Capitalism!"?
We end up like America; we think all we need is capitalism, and so we don't invest in all the great public goods necessary to weave together and spark great breakthroughs, like,
...and so on - and so poof!
Faster than we think is possible, to our shock and dismay, progress stalls, flatlines, and goes into reverse, even to the point of taking democracy with it, as people's lives fall apart.
Isn't that the story of
American collapse in three sentences?
Progress depends on
public goods - and without them, it reverses course in just a few
short years, exactly like it has in America.
...was "civilization", in the sense that we should think about it:
Woven together in more
and more interdependent, conjoined, and improbable ways, those
public goods, finally, after centuries, led humanity at last, to
genuinely life-changing breakthroughs, in wave after pulsing wave of
revelation, discovery, and creativity.
But "wealth" is only as good as the things which "money" denominates - it's not just a handful of trillionaires with mega-mansions full of gaudy loot, while society regresses back to a dark age.
Breakthroughs like chemotherapies, antiobiotics, vaccines, science, art, literature, the world wide web itself, are what genuinely make us "wealthy".
But all these depend on a beautiful, delicate, graceful web of public goods humanity has learned to weave, with great difficulty, over millennia.
The true story of progress is about how all those fragile public goods mesh, interlock, intersect, sparking incandescent, explosive chain reactions of epiphany, spreading in waves across societies, which we'll later call "revolutions" in thought, understanding, and insight, "paradigm shifts".
come from yesterday's public goods, joined together in improbable,
strange, unexpected ways - and history suggests that from
starships to clean energy to life extension serums, they always
The reason American thinkers tell the myth so desperately today is precisely because it's a last-ditch attempt to avoid facing bitter reality.
If they questioned it for even a moment, they'd also have to grapple with the fact that their most cherished belief is a fairy tale - and no one wants to do that in America, if you question capitalism, you're a dangerous heretic - someone to be excommunicated.
No wonder American
thinkers never challenge their greatest myth. Who wants to pay that
price? The Soviets didn't challenge their myths, either. Bang! They
We go blind, just like our wise men.
And while it's perfectly
fine for old men in ivory towers to look at burning flames and see a
party, not a meltdown, for the rest of us, calling the fires of
ignorance enlightenment is somewhere between tragedy and folly.