Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression

28 November 2012


Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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