Except perhaps for the most mindless and extreme rainbow cheerleaders, I can't imagine that anyone living in our time can honestly say that they see a good future. Politics, in particular, is broken. We think of Trump with weary revulsion, but he is not an exception, not even the worst figure around. Different kinds of buffoonery prevails in Canada with Justin Trudeau, in Britain, in Italy, in Turkey. Who is up to the challenge? The heads of state and government of India, China, Japan, and Russia make crass use of the lowest kind of nationalism, coming, especially in India, to support the most cruel and superstitious brand of Hinduism at the expense of scholarship and civil peace. Where democracy is not subverted or absent, it is made such use of as to sicken the sight. In half a dozen European countries, popular rage has borne up out of nowhere parties with Fascist or Nazi antecedents or cruelly nationalistic attitudes. In Hungary and Italy, these people have reached government; in Germany and Sweden they are the official or actual opposition. Not only is nobody happy; nobody can see a way for matters to improve. Optimism, except for a few fanatics, is dead.
Now what occurred to me may not necessarily help or do anything to point to a solution; rather, it is a small matter – of what might be called style. Or even content. Of the things we take for granted even if we rape our language in so doing. Just how many of us do not use the word “progress” in an unmitigatedly positive meaning? Even though this word, in its daily use, has no such meaning. We may speak of the progress of a cancer, of a dictatorship, of an avalanche, without any sense of incongruity. And yet “progress” as such is uniformly taken as positive. To understand just how absurd this is, try to think of a good disease, a good tyranny, a good avalanche. Absurd, isn't it? Or if not absurd, at least weakening the subject to the point of near-vanishing. A good dictator, surely, is a man who is almost not a dictator; a good cancer (yes, there is such a thing as a benignant tumor) is one that is practically ineffective. And I defy you to think of any circumstances in which an avalanche may be said to be good. But what is more, these things have progress just in so much as they are not good. It is a malignant tumor that progresses; an avalanche is the more destructive, the more it progresses; a tyranny progresses in so far as it gains further and further control.
Our politics has now gained pretty much the character of the progress of a cancer or of an avalanche – the advance of a progressive and inevitable misfortune. It was not always so. For a few centuries, riding the progress of European power and European science, improvement in material matters seemed to everyone the inevitable lot of our society. That was the progress of our society, and it was good. Then came the period of revolutions and reforms; and people, by unconsciously squinting and editing all the bad and allowing themselves to see only the good, confirmed their acquired view that “progress” is good as such. Most of the revolutionary work was indeed good, restoring European civilization to its natural inner balance as seen in the Middle Ages; but along with it went fanaticism, violence, and above all falsehood – and that falsehood was primarily provoked by the increasingly irresponsible concept of progress.
To me, it looks as though we should be at the end of this cycle. The “progress” of world and local politics is so increasingly bad, everywhere, that it would take iron shutters over one's eyes to preserve this concept of “progress”. Indeed, the “progress” of recent politics is in only one direction, only it is not a direction that can be defined as political at all. The American presidential elections, the Brexit referendum, the Italian elections, the Irish abortion referendum, are occasions where the party that lied the most won; where hucksterism and mendacity were not only used without shame, but triumphantly. No amount of well-argued refutation of the lies of Trump, of the Brexiters, of Di Maio and Salvini, of Leo Varedkar and his accomplices, could make a dent in the will of the majority – or of the victorious minority. Why? IN part because the electors hated and despised the opposition – that was the case with America and Italy – so intensely that they did not believe a word they said, and all responses went in one ear and out the other; and in part because of the corrupt and committed role of the media – both Brexit and Irish abortion were won by revolting abuse of media power. And these two things go together; because a vague awareness of the corruption and mendacity of the media is one of the main reasons, if not the main one, why answers from an enemy who is perceived as having always lied are not believed.
We should at least get rid of this increasingly grotesque joke of a concept of “progress”. We should be aware, even if we hate each other so much, that however we regard moral improvement, it is not here and it is not happening. But the concept goes on occupying the background of our minds, idle, hollow, damaging and unchallenged. Why is this?
I would say, because of the need to sell. The mass media are only a part of the big-business skeleton of our society, and big business has a natural interest in making people believe, one, that things are always changing, and, two, that they are always changing for the better. “Progress” is certainly a good thing in, say, computers. Except where it isn't – printers have become worse, not better, with the passing of the years. But above all, this way of thinking, that is natural to people who always have to promote something to the public, is never challenged, because it would not occur to corporate persons to think that there is anything radically mistaken about it. They spend their lives in a progressive environment, how can they think that there is something mistaken about the concept? And the mass media dominate our communications across our society to the extent that they pretty much decide what is important and what not.
And this brings out another important point. The inevitable goodness of progress is the typical view of the huckster. If selling is the main business of your life – selling, that is, in itself, as opposed to selling some product you made and that you regard as good – then the first thing you say is that it is new, never used before (and so your prospective client is made to think he ought to try it) and improved on previous models. Is it a coincidence, you think, that ours is the age of hucksters, with salesmen such as Berlusconi and Trump dominating politics?