Ideas of progress and the New Optimism: a historian’s take

Is our world getting better and better, aka “progressing?” That definitely counts as one of the Big Questions, and it has all kinds of spill-over implications for the other Big Questions. Take social justice, for instance. For most of us, how strongly we believe in progress does a lot to shape how we think about the social arrangements around us. You may notice present-day injustices, maybe they anger you — but if you believe in long-term progress, you may also figure that’s the price we pay for future benefits, perhaps not for ourselves but for our children and their children.

You can call this the investment vision of progress– the idea is, we’re putting aside some things we’d like today in order to have better times in the future, just like when we put money every month into an IRA. It’s a vision that’s shared across the conventional political spectrum, by people who disagree about most everything else. Left wingers acknowledge that political revolutions, the nationalization of industries, and the like produce dislocation and suffering– but they see these as necessary steps toward a better future. Right-wingers celebrate the long-term benefits of capitalism, but they also understand it’s screwing over workers in places like Youngstown Ohio or Shenzhen China. Nobody thinks it’s all progress all the time and everywhere; like everything else, you have to think in big-picture terms to see things properly. (For a smart exploration of related issues, check out my friend’s post at The Kramer is Now.)

That big-picture requirement may help explain one peculiarity about contemporary discussions of progress: actual historians, the people who’ve spent years training themselves to think about change over time, haven’t had much to say about the issue. But we’re getting a ton of commentary from experts in other fields, pretty much all of it pushing strong versions of the progress line.

To get a sense of just how much they’re saying and how loudly, check out this Guardian piece about “The New Optimists,” a designation meant to convey that these aren’t just a few intellectuals whose ideas happen to converge, but a full-scale movement. The optimists are mostly social scientists and pundits, according to the Guardian, and their optimism rests heavily on statistics. People are living longer than ever before; we have more to eat, and vaccines are saving millions of lives yearly; we’re less likely to kill and torture one another. Every day, thousands of people around the world escape from extreme poverty. The NY Times‘s Nicholas Kristof tells us “2016 was the best year in the history of humanity,” and he thinks 2017 will be even better.

The Guardian writer has some thoughtful criticisms of all this sunny-sidedness, but what struck me was that even he took the basic optimist idea as self-evident. “Nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century,” is how he puts it; his criticisms mostly concern the possible disasters looming in the future, not how good we have it today. It’s a line that puts him squarely in the Zeitgeist mainstream, as summed up by the great sports/politics journalist Albert Burneko: “the past was awful. It was a time of choleric ignoramuses flopping around in their own shit and killing each other for entertainment. I feel bad for everyone who lived before today.” At least Burneko sees the humor in this kind of talk. The optimist intellectuals are deadly serious in their self-congratulation.

There used to be quite a few historians who thought this way– for instance E. H Carr, about whom I posted some thoughts a couple of years ago. But my impression is, not many still do so, and they’re certainly not conspicuous on the optimism bandwagon. What’s our problem with optimism, or at least my problem with it?

For a start, of course, optimism about progress requires some complicated spinning of the recent past. You have to see Verdun, Stalingrad, the Belgian Congo, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and all the other recent horrors as outliers, brief deviations from the long-term trend toward non-violence. You also have to relativize the statistics, as the psychologist Steven Pinker (one of the new optimist heavy hitters) does in arguing that violence has steadily declined over the millennia. Sure, he acknowledges, World War II killed about 80 million people, but it didn’t kill as high a percentage of the world’s population as some pre-historic wars, so not to worry.

Other statistical hijinks get used as well to make the optimism case, as in the relentless citation of life expectancy statistics. It’s impressive to learn (as the optimists so often tell us) that nineteenth-century life expectancies were around 31, but it’s also misleading. Infant and childhood mortality was high back in the old days, but even in 1600, once you made it to adulthood, you could expect to live into your fifties or sixties, and there were plenty of seventy-somethings around.

Income calculations are another opportunity for trickery. If doctor fees costs sky-rocket, average incomes go up– but does anyone think we’re better off? Back in the bad old days around 1900, impoverished workers lived in tenement apartments in the Lower East Side or the rue Saint-Antoine. Nowadays the same apartments cost a bundle, only trust-fund hipsters can afford them, and ordinary people spend hours commuting in from distant, dingy suburbs. The statistics say that transformation has made us better off, since average wealth and the incomes deriving from it (think of all those real estate commissions!) have risen so dramatically; the reality is a serious decline in the quality of ordinary lives.

But the main problem with the new optimism isn’t the methods, it’s the outlook it encourages, both about our own lives and about other peoples’– namely, pitying scorn for those who don’t live as we do, over-the-top smugness about ourselves. You don’t have to romanticize the past to think it had things we might envy, just as we have our own strong points. Yes, pre-modern Florence and London smelled bad and harbored diseases; they also gave ordinary people the chance to live in some of the all-time most beautiful built environments, not to mention nurturing ungodly numbers of creative genius types, in the Michelangelo/Shakespeare/Galileo league, all this in tiny societies (Renaissance Florence had about 70,000 people, Shakespeare’s London may have reached 300,000). Is life in strip-mall suburbia really a big step up, even if does come with ten or fifteen more years of lifespan thrown in?

In the same spirit, we can agree with the new optimists that lots of those Florentines and Londoners had impulse control problems that led to violence– while also feeling queasy about our own specific forms of violence, with its sanitized, remote-control, industrial ways of killing.

I’ve mentioned before in these posts, I have mixed feelings about the lessons to be learned from studying history. Past and present are both so complicated, you can’t usually draw lines from one to the other. But history can at least teach some respect for other societies and other ways of living– and a little embarrassment when you hear claims that right now is the greatest time ever.