Monday, November 28, 2011

The Exegesis: The Myth of Progress

Back in the 90s when everyone had gone crazy for the tech bubble I'd get a lot of people asking me what I was investing in. "Nothing," I'd reply, "I'm too conservative to play the stock market."

It always got a chuckle and then a double-take; oh, he means it. I'd seen a few bubbles come and go in the comic market and saw the damage they could do when they burst. The tech bubble burst but that was just a sneak preview of what would happened when the housing bubble burst. Bubbles are fundamentally anti-conservative, in my view.

In these Orwellian times, when dominant power structures devote vast resources to destroying our vocabulary and the possibility of discourse itself, the word "conservative" has come to be identified with a person who blindly follows any of the dominant right-wing political modalities; Theocon, Neocon, Corporatist.

None of these modalities are in fact conservative because none of them value modesty, caution, tradition or the preservation of long-standing conditions or institutions.

Instead they are all degrees of soft fascism, in that they all worship corporate power and seek to remake society in their own image, according to their varying precepts of "Progress." But all of them would result in a world in which civil society would be replaced by corporate dictate.

In many ways I'm a Yankee of the flinty, old school variety-- there's nothing I hate more than arbitrary or unnecessary change. And I still believe in many of those old school conservative values --such as honesty, industry, loyalty and thrift-- that the situationally-ethical corporatist establishment prescribes for others but never practice themselves.

It's just that I know from study that counterculture, mysticism, psychedelia and the rest are actually traditions as old as the hills.

One of the reasons I wrote Our Gods Wear Spandex and The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll was to prove that cultural movements that are dismissed as aberrations or accidents of history are anything but, in fact they long predate many of the more respectable cultural institutions like the Church or classical music.

And although I love technology, I have a deep suspicion of the ideal of Progress-- the ideal that human history is this linear sequence that is on an infinite arc up, to where depends on who you ask.

You can't study ancient history and pretend that civilization, technology and culture are anything but cyclical, if not utterly random. One of the best examples of this is Ancient Egypt, which seemed to have started at a peak and then sort of spiraled downward in some ways and stayed utterly stagnant in others.

Europe followed a similar path from the rise of Constantine to the Renaissance. Science, health, social comity and overall education took a nosedive sometime between Theodosius and Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the West. Things got so bad in Rome proper that the details and chronology of the latter's reign are still unknown. Modern conservatives protest that Rome continued in the East, but there too we saw incessant decline, just on a slower timetable.

That's what history teaches you: Progress is subject to the variables that are often impossible to account for- weather, earth changes, plague, etc etc etc. There are no straight lines.

My distrust of Progress is how easily the idea can be twisted to suit the agenda of the least humane elements in the world.
The Plutocracy, for instance sees the replacement of American and European workers with offshore labor or machines as the apogee of human progress, but for everyone else it's a disaster. They see the replacement of craftsmanship and pride of work with mass-produced plastic or glueboard crap from slave labor camps in China the same exact way.

Correspondingly, the far left have replaced the tradition tenets of liberalism-- tolerance, equality of opportunity, economic justice-- with the intentionally nebulous ideal of "Progressivism," which in many ways is not only often radically illiberal, it's often used as cudgel by the Right to bash the liberals with. There's no doubt in my mind that it was designed to do so.

My favorite example of the regressive reality of the Progressivist ideal is Antioch College, a legendary liberal institution whose alumni included such luminaries like Coretta Scott King, Rod Serling and Steven Jay Gould. Antioch took every progressive innovation to heart until it became a national laughing stock for its extremist adherence to political correctness, then succumbed to an ugly, prolonged decline before finally being shut down by its trustees in 2008. It's reopened this past year but has a very long way to go before it can restore its reputation or its student population.

Robert Motherwell's idea of Progress

Ultimately though, my suspicion of Progress is based, like everything else, in culture and the arts. The only person who wasn't surprised that the CIA funded the abstract expressionist movement was me, since I've long suspected that all of these emperor's new clothes movements in the fine arts world were designed to drive a wedge between the arts community and the general public.

I'd suspected as much largely due to the fact that the Guggenheim mining dynasty-- along with other corporate oligarchs such as the Rockefellers-- were the main patrons of these increasingly alienating movements, which allowed the talentless children of privilege like Robert Motherwell (whose father was the president of Wells Fargo) to pretend they were artists. The damage this program did to the prestige and reputation of the visual arts lingers to this day.

This new "Progress" decimated several generations of artists in North America and Europe, as prestigious schools stopped teaching the fundamentals of the craft and filled student's heads with a bunch of bullshit theory in their place. Representational artists were openly scorned, ridiculed and suppressed as "regressive" and counter-revolutionary. Only in the past couple of decades has the pendulum swung back, thanks largely to the low brow and neo-Surrealist movements openly hostile to the art world establishment.

Some context is needed here, mind you. In many ways abstract expressionism and related movements were a response to the challenge posed by the Industrial Revolution and its aftershocks, especially motion picture and video. Many promising artists- Donald Cammell, to name one-- felt like the plastic arts were static and inert compared to the possibilities of electronic media (in Cammell's case it was cinema and rock and roll).

But the response was the wrong one, in my opinion. And it points to a hideous irony-- how the progressive ideal is in many ways actually reactionary, or at least reactive.


Gang of Four before...

But of course the thing that made me come to deeply resent the myth of Progress was the response the music industry had to the disappointing reception most of the first wave of Punk and New Wave bands faced in the late 70s and early 80s.

When disco imploded in 1979, the new crop of rock bands was given a major push by the record companies. The investment paid off for acts like The Knack, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, The Police, and The Cars. But many other bands tanked or underperformed and success was shortlived for many of the new hitmakers.

In order to jumpstart sales, enormous pressure was put on these bands to radically tone down their music and their images, even acts as seemingly hardcore as The Clash and The Ramones. However, the bands and their labels faced a major problem-- the hype that accompanied their debuts proclaimed that these bands had declared war on the soft rock and disco complacency dominating the charts. Now that these bands were themselves recording soft rock and disco only marginally distinguishable from the acts they were meant to replace, a new argument had to be made for them. And that was the "Progress" argument.

The word came down from on high that these bands had embraced "Progress," which inevitably moved in the direction of the Top 40. These acts weren't selling out by recording soft rock and pop and disco, they were being Progressive, usually by adding in some vague politics and radio-friendly Third World rhythms into the mix.

By far the most egregious sellouts-- and the most obnoxious proponents of the new "Progress" party line dogma-- were Gang of Four, who made their mark serving up frantic, aggressive punk funk (influencing acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process) and confrontational Marxist politicking. But as soon as the record company looked at them cross-eyed the Gang rolled over and played dead, serving up the odious soft rock/disco hybrid abortion Hard in 1983.

By its release, two of the Four had quit in disgust already and the band was laughed out of existence the following year. They made a Stalinist point to erase all of this from their history when hitting the comeback trail a few years back. Ironically, the new generation was only interested in the records they made before this suicidal embrace of Progress took old, as is usually the case.

...and after Progress.

Gang of Four were by no means alone (Combat Rock anyone?). And what neither the bands nor the record companies realized was that the audience was in a state of transition at the time. Music video would make weirdos and punks marketable by mid-1982 and a sizable alternative circuit would emerge and eventually complete the work the punks had set out to do in the late 70s.

The phony idea of "Progress" turned out to be a poison pill when the change came. Many of the acts that compromised collapsed under the weight of all the bullshit or were disgraced and/or relegated to cult act status. The ones that didn't went on to build huge, dedicated audiences. If only the artists and their managers stuck it out a bit longer, they could have gotten over the hump and helped change the face of the music industry.


Ironically, there were two opposing movements in the 19th Century that enshrined the ideal of Progress. The first was Marxism, which reacted to the massive social crises unleashed by the Industrial Revolution by proposing a "scientific" model in which to re-organize industrial society. The other was Dispensationalism, the Christian Fundamentalist interpretation of scripture which presented a model in which all of history was seen to progressing inexorably to the Great Revelation and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The unprecedented explosion in machine technology, as well as in chemistry and other sciences, seemed to bolster the idea that culture and religion were both part of this march of progress. Fascism too embraced progress at the same time it presented itself as the great restorer of European tradition.

With the rise of computers and the Internet the idea of linear progress became self-evident to many people. Particularly those who ignored that the Industrial and Information Revolutions were not entirely without precedent. Or ignored that technology has led to the de-evolution of human talents and abilities in many ways.

Many of us take Moore's Law as a truism, and the idea of this incessant doubling of technological capacity has led to what is in many ways the apotheosis of the Myth of Progress, namely Transhumanism. Yet the idea that computer technology is approaching the Singularity is by no means embraced by the scientific community, and we're seeing a lot of talk now claiming that progress has stalled. Transhumanism may come to pass or there may be some event that militates against it. But it is not inevitable.

In the final analysis, there's progress and there's the myth thereof. I believe absolutely that humans can't operate without something to look forward to. I believe absolutely that we need goals, sometimes impossible ones to keep us going.

I believe that human beings have potentials yet unrealized, perhaps even a destiny. I strive in all things to improve and innovate, whatever it is that I do. I live with the hope every day that I'll overcome my health issues and live a better life. I want to think that I'll be happy and fulfilled in my work. I want the same for everyone around me.

But in order to achieve our objectives I believe we need to stop thinking that wheel needs to be constantly reinvented. We need to place human well-being above all other goals, most especially the goals of Progress. There's no good innovation that doesn't contribute to the greatest good of the greatest number.

People come first. Without that first principle, Progress will always give birth to horror.