The Death of Progress
Many people instinctively feel that the future is uncertain and our children might not be as well off as ourselves. We all experience this worry about the state of our world. A Gallup Poll conducted in 2017 concluded that the world is ‘sad, worried, stressed and in pain’ Most negative scores were recorded in countries that had experienced conflict and displacement, but the overall trend was global, with three out of four Americans experiencing some form of anxiety.
Is this what progress has given us? By destroying our planet and ecosystem, are we actually destroying ourselves? Is there a cause we can rally around within the moral wasteland of consumerism ? While we worry, citadels of privilege are being fortified and increasingly placed out of reach. Should we storm them, so we can start rebuilding? Are we ready for serious upheaval? Maybe we need it. Perhaps the future is worth fighting for, even if we have to gamble.
As I get older, I ponder my place in the grand scheme of things. I sort of have to. I want to understand my parents and my children in relation to myself and my generation. Where do we all stand in history and where does my own anxiety about the future come from.
My parents were baby-boomers, born in 1950. They grew up in the shadow of World War Two, their parents always talking about the war and the deprivation it had wrought. As white, middle-class people from educated backgrounds, the world was at their feet as they progressed into adulthood, — full employment, rising standards of living, educational opportunities and governments founded on the premise they would look after their citizens, from cradle to grave. Their generation was to become the richest in the history of humankind. Their experiences taught them that the world could be made, shaped and formed; gradual improvements would lead to an ever better world.
This affected their attitudes, their views on life. Almost naturally, they transformed into political moderates, holding the ‘center ground,’ always compromising to accommodate their steady march to progress. By now, they have been at the helm for a few decades; leading countries, companies, educational institutions and media outlets, dominating public opinion, unable to see that society is radically altering at its depths.
We were brought up on a steady idea of linear progress, projecting visions of growth into the future, encouraged to think ‘where we see ourselves in ten years.’ We have learned to plan and to anticipate, to be ambitious and bold, to improve ourselves and develop our talents, in search of fulfillment as a manifest destiny. It was the middle class liberals who projected this vision onto the rest of society and made it the cornerstone of its socialization process, in schools, workplaces and media. Is it somewhat surprising that our firm faith in steady growth was always so ingrained into our very existence?
The attitude of our baby-boomer parents is reflected in our education system. We are encouraged to adhere to the formula: work hard at school, get a diploma and find a job. These are the steps to a successful life. Follow them carefully and you too can aspire to a mortgage, a family, a career and a pension.
Stirring the depths
Funny that. How history always outpaces the conceptions of those at its helm. For the formulas of the 20th century no longer hold. Middle-ground liberals no longer relate to the dominant mood of a society in transition. Their expectations are a relic of the past and they cannot understand what is happening around them. Just look at the recent upheavals: Trump’s presidency and imminent re-election, Brexit and the rise of populism.
I am trapped in the middle — born in 1980 — just when things started radically changing. As the son of educated baby-boomers, I was raised on the expectation of gradual progress and I believed in it, convinced the world was going to be that little bit better with time. Now, I no longer do and the children I teach even laugh at the idea.
Are we the middle children of history, raised on the fault lines between the societies of old and the new order?
We want to believe in progress. This is the attitude we have inherited. But lots has changed. Economic disparity is larger, conflict persists and the very people (our parents) who have always championed universal values like freedom and equality have abandoned their projects, making it ever harder to align our inherited attitudes to the reality of the world around us.
Reflecting on the future
The experience of recent history has awakened us — boom! — reality check.
By the end of the 1970s most social movements had either been smashed, co-opted, or settled for limited successes. Equality for women had been partly achieved through the invention of the anti-conception pill and the introduction of numerous laws promoting emancipation. But had patriarchy been done away with? Or had the improvements only affected a relative privileged minority?
Most colonies achieved their liberation, sometimes as a result of bloody guerrilla wars, which exposed their ‘civilized’ mother countries as barbarians. There was no question whose side the young people of Europe were on during the American War in Vietnam, the Algerian war for independence or the persisting abuses in South Africa. Movements fighting for independence were often progressive, presenting extensive social programs or national development along socialist lines. They reflected the universalism and collective idealism of the generation. But did independence really deliver?
New nations founded on hope were sabotaged until they were no longer able to rise above the abject poverty imposed on them by the old order. Most regimes that assumed power with massive popular mandates were either overthrown by military cliques after the initial enthusiasm of independence wore off or they turned into the proverbial pigs from Orwell’s famous story Animal Farm. Once in power, they abandoned their old dreams and merely continued the abuses and exploitation of the old colonial states.
Wealth did not ‘trickle down’ and under increasing pressures from classical economists, the Keynesian concept of a strong, re-distributive state, gave way to the primacy of market capitalism. Humans were faulty and to let them control the redistribution of wealth through institutions of the state could surely only lead to abuse of power. Slowly but surely, the baby boomers became ‘complicit’ in a project of ‘redistribution’ of wealth in the opposite direction. Now, it seems we no longer have a middle class. Rather, we have all become proletarians to some extent, riddled with debt and wholly dependent on our wages, often stripped of some of the perks of the post-war consensus — pensions, universal healthcare and education etc.
In spite of the orchestrated jubilation that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumphant exclamations that capitalism had proven itself superior, our economic system has failed us. It has managed to immerse us in a world where we are so individualized, that loneliness has become a new epidemic, especially with for elderly, who are quickly becoming the majorities in the West. They long for days past, while they grind their teeth in nursing homes, un-visited by the children they reared, who are too busy working useless jobs they maintain so they can crush themselves under the merciless debt of home ‘ownership.’
We are terrified at the future and we live on a dying planet, whilst we know that death and destruction will come slowly and there are ways of preventing some of the worst fall-out. How depressing, to have been neutralized in a life-or-death struggle, along with billions of others. Have we unlearned to unleash our collective furies? Are we so ‘specialized’ we are ignoring what we have in common?
There are more billionaires in the world than ever before and they feast off the stink of a dying planet, unbothered by the fate of their poorer brethren, who are now dying by the thousands. Our media has us admiring them, desperately perpetuating the idea that success is within our reach. Their attempts ring hollow and grey. Millions of us have stopped believing. But unfortunately that does not mean we have taken up the challenge. Far more of us have turned away from it all, disgusted by the state of the world. We don’t vote, because why would we engage with a broken system. We don’t fight, because we do not believe we can win.
That is also the curse of my generation — the middle children of modern history. We have lost faith in progress, but we are too stuck in the psychic reality of our parents. That’s why we continue to live as we have seen them do. We study, we work, we marry, we have mortgages, ignoring the death rattle of our planet, looking away at the tragic fate engulfing humanity.
My generation has stopped believing in progress. Perhaps our children can shake us up. It is our last chance.
 D. Harvey, A brief history of neoliberalism