A Social Theory for Strange Times
This is a synthesis of sorts. It may represent a profound insight about the nature of reality, or it may just represent the way my mind constructs a framework to understand the world. But then again reality is in many cases nothing more than our collective frameworks of thought.
In this essay I want to move beyond first-level thinking. If white nationalism and belief in falsehoods are on the rise, I wish to move beyond condemnation and reaction (“Trump is Bad”, “Believe in Science”) and seek a deeper level of understanding. To change the world, or to accurately predict how the world is likely to change, it is necessary to comprehend not just current events, but also the underlying causes.
As I have been examining the world through the lens of the religion of Progress, I have increasingly felt that many of the events and conflicts unfolding in the world can be understood through this lens. Among these are:
- The cult following of Elon Musk
- The Great Reset
- Scientific dogmatism
- A “post-truth” world
- Covid panic and botched response
- Social justice mania
- The rise of white nationalism
Before I can discuss the way in which the religion of Progress could possibly inform all of these disparate issues, I need to put to rest the idea that the “religion of Progress” is simply a linguistic convenience to describe belief in a modern world. If we understand that modern industrial society has provided alternative answers to existential questions for a majority of human beings in the so-called “developed world”, then it becomes clear that belief in Progress cannot simply end once the underlying progress comes to a halt. To one who believes in Progress, the end of progress is impossible, inconceivable, unthinkable, unacceptable.
When confronted with a loss so profound that it shakes our identities to the core, human beings do not simply adapt. Instead, we grieve. Grief is a well-understood process, as all of us must at some point come to terms with the loss of loved ones as well as our own inevitable death. Those who work with the grieving process understand that it typically involves five phases, not always in this order:
In my last post, I argued that we are collectively transitioning from a long phase of societal growth/progress to one of decline, hopefully culminating in sustainability. Furthermore, I posited that different groups of people are at different stages of that trajectory, with lower classes well along into decline while the middle classes are starting downward and only the elite continue to progress.
What if, then, we posit that our society is moving through the process of grieving the end of progress, and that different groups within society are at different stages based on when progress ended for them? That was an insight that “clicked” for me, as much of the strangeness I have been observing started to fit into place.
The model looks something like this:
Within this framework, the political right is substantially further along on this process, and indeed positioning along this axis seems to be actively reorienting the political spectrum. This is apparent when noting that regions in decline – timber towns, mining towns, agricultural areas, manufacturing hubs – lean strongly right. These areas in general have much poorer prospects than in years past, low and declining housing values, high rates of poverty, and lower life expectancy. Meanwhile areas where progress continues – cities, college towns, tech-industry-dominated communities – lean strongly left. These areas have better prospects (but still lower than the prior generation), high and rising housing values, and lower rates of poverty. This is also apparent when noting that the working classes have largely moved rightward on the political spectrum while the affluent, traditionally-conservative suburbs have moved leftward.
I remember watching the political right descend into denial and anger in the early 2000s. At the time I was confused, because from my liberal perspective I couldn’t see anything to be angry about. But looking back, I can see this as a grief response to a decline of the agricultural, manufacturing, and resource-extraction sectors of the economy brought about in large part by neoliberal economics and globalization.
In 2017 I wrote this about Trump’s election:
Trump, despite all of his failings and inconsistencies, won the presidency by admitting that progress had stopped while his opponents kept up the pretense. He assembled a coalition of those who had suffered the most in the past decade, squeezed by layoffs, pay cuts, and ever-rising costs. He pledged to “make America great again.” He has ushered in an era when truth itself is vulnerable to attack, when facts and “alternative facts” compete for airtime.
Trump managed to gain broad support on the right in part because he was willing to use the taboo d-word – “decline” – in speaking frankly to angry and downtrodden people about their experiences over the past 20-30 years. But rather than offering wealth redistribution or promoting acceptance of decline as inevitable, he espoused a series of divisive non-solutions along with a sort of brand loyalty, of success-by-association. Thus began the bargaining phase, the low point of the grieving process when people cannot yet accept their loss and will try anything, based on the flimsiest of hopes, to regain their lost belief and avoid coming to terms with their loss.
Bargaining is the most dangerous phase, as emotions run hot and self-preservation trumps morality as a motivation. White nationalism – long a fringe viewpoint – rapidly gained prominence as Trump and the alt-right blamed the end of progress on immigration, on multiculturalism, on diversity. We are lucky, I think, that Trump was a mere arrogant narcissist playing reality TV with the presidency, as opposed to a true Hitler-type ideologue intent on driving a genocidal agenda.
We may need to confront the bargaining of the right again in the future, but my sense is that that demographic is largely moving on, through depression to acceptance, and that the next bargaining-phase threat will arise from the left.
As a former Democrat and one who still holds left-leaning ideals, I have watched with horror as the political left, over the past few years, started down the same road of denial and anger that the political right followed twenty years earlier. Journalist Matt Taibbi captured this transition well in a recent opinion piece titled “Rachel Maddow is Bill O’Reilly.” The article is full of examples of Maddow’s outrage-inducing headlines that later proved to be false or unsupported, with no apology or retraction but choosing rather to move on to the next bombshell allegation. I have similarly watched in startled surprise as left-leaning states clung to and strengthened their Covid restrictions, even as it became clear both that the restrictions have minimal effect on viral spread and that the disease was not nearly as dangerous as originally feared. I wrote a whole essay on that topic, so I won’t discuss it further here. I have been equally surprised, at the same time, to see voices of science and reason emerging on the right, in some cases from the very same mouths that spouted constant outrage and falsehood ten years ago.
It seems that the time has come when self-styled progressives must face their own reckoning with the end of progress. The political left is largely a younger crowd, and this is taking the form of a student debt crisis, of insufficient jobs to justify expensive degrees, of housing prices putting homeownership increasingly out of reach and making rental tenuous, of children living with parents well into adulthood, of generally poorer prospects than the previous generation, of decaying urban infrastructure, of associated depression, addiction, and mental health crises.
Even as billionaires extract wealth, thereby exacerbating decline, they maintain a cult of celebrity among those who wish to believe we are still progressing. So we cheer Elon Musk’s limited-lifespan, resource-intensive electric cars and his explosion-prone rockets that replicate 1970s accomplishments to great futuristic fanfare. We celebrate his totally unnecessary swarm of StarLink satellites that pollute the night sky with crawling lights and risk creating enough space junk to render low Earth orbit unusable. We bid up his stocks to make him the richest man on Earth. We would rather, it seems, see progress continue for an ever-shrinking elite group than admit that progress is coming to an end.
The increasingly shrill voices of social justice warriors, eager to cancel anyone who has ever spoken out of line, are in my view also an outgrowth of the denial and anger phases. If we can define progress as a social phenomenon, and we can achieve increasing acceptance of marginalized identities in our communities, then it is easier to pretend that we are still moving forward even as we earn less money and pay more for basic needs. If we can change acceptable language such that books and films from even twenty years ago seem racist or biased by today’s standards, then we can feel that the present is still an improvement over the recent past.
The left seems to be moving through the phases at a comparably faster clip, likely because the rate of decline is accelerating and it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in Progress. At the same time, I am not yet seeing anything approaching acceptance in blue states and cities. We are entering the bargaining phase, the time of pursuing non-solutions in the belief that they will restart progress and thereby restore faith in Progress.
Instead of nativist or nationalist resentments being promoted largely by fringe groups, we have the Great Reset, the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” with the backing of the World Economic Forum and thereby a majority of corporate and government elites. We have “Build Back Better”, the Green New Deal. We have visions of a shiny Star Trek future made possible by global interconnected technology, the Internet of Things and soon perhaps the Internet of People with cloud-connected biometric sensors and augmented reality.
It is important to recognize that the Great Reset constitutes nothing more than decline marketed as progress. It is a markedly-reduced quality of life with markedly-constrained personal freedoms that happens to look superficially more like Star Trek. If we can let go of our obsession with new-and-improved technology, then the “utopian” visions appear much less enticing. Take, for example, the oft-cited “Welcome to 2030” vision published by the World Economic Forum:
Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city”. I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes. It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city. Everything you considered a product, has now become a service.
Shopping? I can’t really remember what that is. For most of us, it has been turned into choosing things to use. Sometimes I find this fun, and sometimes I just want the algorithm to do it for me. It knows my taste better than I do by now.
My biggest concern is all the people who do not live in our city. Those we lost on the way. Those who decided that it became too much, all this technology. Those who felt obsolete and useless when robots and AI took over big parts of our jobs. Those who got upset with the political system and turned against it. They live different kind of lives outside of the city. Some have formed little self-supplying communities. Others just stayed in the empty and abandoned houses in small 19th century villages.
Once in awhile I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. No where I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.
All in all, it is a good life. Much better than the path we were on, where it became so clear that we could not continue with the same model of growth. We had all these terrible things happening: lifestyle diseases, climate change, the refugee crisis, environmental degradation, completely congested cities, water pollution, air pollution, social unrest and unemployment. We lost way too many people before we realised that we could do things differently.
We are on the wrong path, they say – a path of decline that can be averted by embracing a life in which we own nothing and have no privacy. Which means, of course, that the corporate-government conglomerate owns everything and knows everything about everyone. And pity those poor people who choose not to go along.
It is important to recognize, in this moment, that – short of a heretofore-unknown-and-extremely-unlikely breakthrough source of cheap energy – nothing can forestall the end of progress. The Great Reset will fail over the long term, and it will almost certainly never be implemented in the hinterlands where people are already rejecting the religion of Progress and choosing to remove technology from their lives. In cities, though, it could produce a world of hurt – an authoritarian dystopia designed ultimately to prolong progress for the world’s elite by converting all products to services and thereby extracting wealth from all aspects of life. Once we purchased software; now it is all by subscription. Imagine if the entire economy operated on this model. For this reason I sincerely hope that people will see through the hope and hype and firmly reject this vision, moving onward ultimately to acceptance of the end of progress, and letting go of the associated religious beliefs.
We still have some tumultuous years ahead, and a post-progress, post-Progress world will be in many ways more difficult than the world we are accustomed to. Many paved roads will revert to gravel. We will downsize, simplify. We will travel less and value our local communities more. Some supplies will be increasingly difficult to find, and electricity and medical care will likely become less reliable.
At the same time, it will become much easier once a majority of us accept that we are living in a post-progress world, instead of executing all manner of mental gymnastics to believe that we are still progressing or working messily through the process of grieving. Perhaps then we can begin to make wise decisions, like reinvesting in a robust passenger rail network to replace resource-intensive driving and flying, or reserving our Department of Defense for exactly that purpose instead of attempting to bully the entire planet into submission at the risk of igniting nuclear war, or building resilient local food webs to replace fragile global supply chains.
Perhaps once we let go of our belief in Progress, we will no longer idolize the wealthy and willingly transfer our hard-earned wealth to them. Perhaps we will put an end to the extractive nature of housing, education, and medical costs, among others. Perhaps we will be able, at least on a local or regional level, to build an economy of, for, and by the people.
There are many who never believed in Progress – or who were never invited to believe – who can provide guidance when we are ready. It is time to once again value our elders, our Indigenous peoples, our traditional knowledge, as our brief fossil-fueled season of imagined godhood comes to its inevitable end and we once again seek to live sustainably on this ancient, living planet Earth.