Idle speculation follows.
I suppose that around 1800, the idea of inevitable progress driven by forces inexorable, if invisible, could maybe have seemed compelling:
– technology was clearly getting better;
– religion, in the view of Protestants, was clearly getting better,
– government, at least if you weren’t a king of some sort, was sort of getting better.
So maybe a man surveying the landscape and squinting a little could conclude that, wow, things are just getting better all over! WooEeee! What a great time to be alive here at the end of History! Or something.
Now, events like the French Revolution, which started out promising enough in certain lights, might cause you to add an epicycle or two to your theory, such as: Well, things are *trying* to get better all on their lonesome, but, alas, there are lunkheads that are trying to turn back the clock, and slowing things down! Fools and scoundrels like Catholics and Royalists (when those 2 were different) and stuck-in-the-mud Schoolmen who fail to recognize the adolescent brilliance of Descartes and Hume.
So, in 1800, you could be a sort of Realist Idealist, claiming that your optimism was based on observable reality to at least some extent.
Then, among other things, the French overrun Prussia, and we have to reassess: maybe we need to DO something to help History along? Maybe train up our children so they don’t make the mistakes we did? So now, instead of surfing the wave, we enlightened people are left to attempt to help History along…
Then another 50 years rolls past, and those trends that looked so optimistic in 1800 don’t look so good anymore. Sure, there is lots more wealth and great public works and even a few governments that look kinda better than what we used to have, at least on the surface. But a whole lot of peasants, who used to suffer and die out in the country where we didn’t have to see it, are now suffering and dying in factories, which are both more concentrated and handier to the cities where all of us enlightened folk live. The owners of those factories are often getting rich while the little kids, whose lives are often destroyed by factory work, live in abject poverty. This seems wrong.
So a few more epicycles were added: while the dialectic, which I think can be envisioned as a sort of Optimus Prime, mechanically yet compassionately and wisely moving us forward, will eventually get us to the worker’s paradise, in the meantime it is up to us to make sure all the counterrevolutionary forces meet death as soon as possible, other wise sumptn’ sumptn’ will happen – it’s not exactly clear what, since history is INEVITABLE. Besides, “workers of the world, you probably should hide under the table until the dust settles” just doesn’t work as a catch phrase.
Now, we come to today. In America at the turn of the last century, there were enlightened people pushing to have Hegelianism established as the official philosophy of the US Department of Education. No, really. And talk of ‘Progress’ became ubiquitous, and – most important – came to mean any movement toward that unseen and unseeable end to which Hegel’s Spirit is taking us.
There’s problems with this, as both communists and national socialists have amply demonstrated. When progress comes concretely to mean killing 6 million Jews, 20 million Ukrainians, and untold tens of millions of Chinese, and starting wars and sowing unrest, all in the hope that such bloodthirsty brutality will result in heaven on earth – the end which justifies all means – Progress gets a bad name. So we don’t talk about that, at least for now.
Modern progressives tend to use the language of practical politics – we’re just seeing what we can all agree to do to make things better, and letting it go at that, one small step at a time – instead of Hegelian (or Marxist) dialectic moving us to an undefinable Good. This strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. Nobody is going to say that wanting to pave a street or put in a sewer is particularly Progressive – yet those are the sorts of things people can agree on. What causes problems are things like Obamacare – it’s not something all or even most people agree on. Pedants like me, who try to do the math to see how it’s supposed to work, conclude that not only will it not work in the long run, it wasn’t even intended to work in the long run, as discussed elsewhere. So, one can be entirely in favor of universal health care – I am! – and yet recoil from Obamacare for a whole slew of reasons that have nothing to do with being a meanie or loving pharmaceutical companies or anything apart from wanting it spelled out in practical, clear detail how it’s supposed to work for more than a decade or two. Yet Progressives love love love it, and are unconcerned that it’s unsustainable and poorly structured. Thus, ‘progress’ is functionally defined as voting into law something that has no chance of surviving in its present form. In other words – and these pretty much echo the sorts of words the administration is using – Congress enacted an idea that ‘moves the ball forward’ – but we’re not supposed ask towards what – nobody knows! That’s the miracle of Progress!
In conclusion, it seems to me that faith in progress driven by forces inexorable yet invisible rests, today, on only one observation: technology continues to get better. Religion? Government? Are those getting better? Or, more accurately, faith in progress is purely faith – belief in things unseen.
Question: are the kids buying this? I’m 55, and many of my contemporaries are definitely on board the progress train. We came of age on the tail end of the hippies and protesters, who did present the illusion of progress on some level at least, and then turned around and force-fed us on it in school. But kids – say, 35 and under – do they have any impression of inevitable progress outside of iPods and the like?