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Do we progress?

August 27, 2012

Part of the cultural makeup of Western civilization is its fantasy of human progress, a carryover from medieval historiography which portrayed mankind as slowly working out an existing plan towards a predetermined end.  The end in prospect for medieval thinkers, of course, was the predicted establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.  With the coming of a more materialistic age, this basic idea of progress on a grand scale remained, but the details associated with it changed.

Current historical theory defines human progress and development in terms of a society’s availability of surplus labor.  Thousands of years ago, it points out, innovations in an agrarian society, such as higher-yield crops or better irrigation systems, could enable a smaller workforce to feed a larger population, thereby freeing up part of the total workforce for mechanical or artistic endeavors.  The earliest dedicated craftsmen, scholars, and middlemen are considered to have been members of, or made possible by, this surplus workforce.  Subsequent agricultural and mechanical developments increased the amount of surplus labor still further, making greater and greater portions of the population available for other jobs in a continuous upward spiral of development caused by the cumulative feedback effects of each new advance.  And so, historians theorize, industry and services evolved to become significant parts of human economies, a process that has accelerated enormously in the last two hundred years.  Economists of today often refer to these subdivisions of agriculture, industry, and services as the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors.  If the majority of a population is employed in the secondary and tertiary sectors, that population is considered to be “developed”.  Those populations which are the most engaged in the tertiary sector–that is, in providing nonessential services–are further considered to be the “most developed”.  Widespread engagement in agriculture, on the other hand, instead of being looked upon as the basis for all other economic activities, is considered primitive and undesirable, something that “developing” countries should reduce as soon as possible.

The problem with this theory is that it happens to be glaringly out of step with reality.  Access to surplus labor was supposed to better the human condition.  It was supposed to facilitate art, learning, ingenuity, initiative.  It was supposed to ease the burdens for survival laid on man.  It was thought to produce progress.  Instead, it has produced nothing more than a frighteningly large global population, most of which remains tied up in meaningless forms of employment.  The force of development has not been directed upwards into producing abstract benefits like learning and scholarship, or practical benefits such as health and happiness.  Somehow it was shunted sideways into creating new forms of menial labor that would absorb all the serfs and peasants it released from similar tasks along the way.  By and large, they are not happier or better than their predecessors.  Cumulatively, they can even be said to be more miserable, simply because there are more of them.

Do we progress?  It doesn’t look like it.

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