The naive belief that history is linear, that moral progress accompanies technical progress, is a form of collective self-delusion. It cripples our capacity for radical action and lulls us into a false sense of security. Those who cling to the myth of human progress, who believe that the world inevitably moves toward a higher material and moral state, are held captive by power. Only those who accept the very real possibility of dystopia, of the rise of a ruthless corporate totalitarianism, buttressed by the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus in human history, are likely to carry out the self-sacrifice necessary for revolt.
The yearning for positivism that pervades our corporate culture ignores human nature and human history. But to challenge it, to state the obvious fact that things are getting worse, and may soon get much worse, is to be tossed out of the circle of magical thinking that defines American and much of Western culture. The left is as infected with this mania for hope as the right. It is a mania that obscures reality even as global capitalism disintegrates and the ecosystem unravels, potentially dooming us all.
The 19th century theorist Louis-Auguste Blanqui, unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, dismissed the belief, central to Karl Marx, that human history is a linear progression toward equality and greater morality. He warned that this absurd positivism is the lie perpetrated by oppressors: “All atrocities of the victor, the long series of his attacks are coldly transformed into constant, inevitable evolution, like that of nature. … But the sequence of human things is not inevitable like that of the universe. It can be changed at any moment.” He foresaw that scientific and technological advancement, rather than being a harbinger of progress, could be “a terrible weapon in the hands of Capital against Work and Thought.” And in a day when few others did so, he decried the despoiling of the natural world. “The axe fells, nobody replants. There is no concern for the future’s ill health.”
“Humanity,” Blanqui wrote, “is never stationary. It advances or goes backwards. Its progressive march leads it to equality. Its regressive march goes back through every stage of privilege to human slavery, the final word of the right to property.” Further, he wrote, “I am not amongst those who claim that progress can be taken for granted, that humanity cannot go backwards.”