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Rethinking the World: The Mirage of Progress

The history of western civilization is not a step by step, onward and upward, story of progress. Improvement is not inevitable.

"I endorse Austro Libertarian Magazine 100%" —Tom Woods

Rethinking the World: The Mirage of Progress

The history of western civilization is not a step by step, onward and upward, story of progress. Improvement is not inevitable.
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As we Austro-Libertarians often firmly declare, political democracy is not to be confused with liberty. There are many reasons for this, most commonly cited are the moral and economic ones. Those who are well-read in the literature often refer to the absurdity of majority voting outweighing moral principle and, from an economic point of view, the negative incentives that are created when there is political power overseeing the employment of “society’s” resources; a power that they must take advantage of swiftly due to the limited time nature of their position.

For those coming to terms with the highly theoretical implications of Austrian economics and libertarian political theory, the next step is to wonder whether this democratic framework, with all its negatives and setbacks, is at least the most preferable in an imperfect world. And then of course he considers the thesis of Hans Hoppe who compares monarchy to democracy and is left with the conclusion that democracy is, in fact, less preferable. But the point of this exercise isn’t to initiate a pro-monarchical movement; such a movement makes no sense in the west anymore, especially in the United States.

When one steps back and takes a meta view of the world and its modern development, and looks to sources other than those which dominate the contemporary zeitgeist, one begins to get a larger and more sweeping sense of the tragedy of modern egalitarian democracy. This is because the curious lay-reader inevitably confronts the modern idea that history itself is progress. This is increasingly well-known as the “Whig theory of history.” It is the thesis that mankind and civilization itself are, over time, improving; the world is getting better and as one epoch replaces the previous, it is always a shift forward. Or, as Murray Rothbard once put it, “onward and upward toward the light.”

If the reader will permit, I will lean on a Christian philosopher of the twentieth century, basically unknown to people outside a very small sect of conservative “Reformed” Christians. In a section of A Christian View of Men and Things, Gordon H. Clark writes on “The Philosophy of Progress.”

Before Marx and Hegel recognized the need of a general philosophy of history, partial and desultory reflections had been accumulating for two hundred years. In seventeenth-century France the literary world, with little consciousness of the implications, began a debate, the echoes of which were still reverberating in 1827 when Victor Hugo published the Préface de Cromwell. The dispute concerned the relative merits of ancient and modern authors. One side maintained that the golden age was long past and that now the world could expect only literary senility.

The other side believed in progress. Perrault, the author of Mother Goose Stories and Fairy Tales, argued that the powers of nature have always been the same; oak trees are no less sturdy today than they were centuries ago; and consequently human ability to produce literature has not deteriorated. Not only is there no deterioration; there is progress. The purpose of literature is to please the human heart; a knowledge of the human heart therefore is necessary if an author is to succeed; and since knowledge increases by accumulation, it follows that Corneille, even if his powers of imagination were no greater than those of Homer or Sophocles, understood vengeance and jealousy better than the ancients, and so was able to construct superior plays. This restricted literary controversy initiated a broad examination of political and social history in general, with the result that a radically new worldview came to supplant the older ways of looking at things. Indeed, Marx himself was but one of the contributors to this development.

Eventually, the philosophy of progress won the day and morphed into the modern framework for historical interpretation: things are better to the extent that they are generally later in time and while society and civilization have moments of struggle and moments of success, there can never be decline; humankind moves forward and improves over time as we become more enlightened and able to overcome the biases and bigotries of the old.

Indeed, as Gordon Clark explains of the Progress Thesis:

Since progress is a natural process, it must always have been in operation. Pendulums did not first begin to swing as indicated the year the law of the pendulum was discovered. Similarly, as long as human beings have existed, they must have been improving. There was therefore no ancient golden age, but, on the contrary, every succeeding generation advances beyond the preceding.

Accumulation of scientific information is not sufficient; there must be social and moral improvement as well.

Under this arrangement, under the interpretive framework that is upheld by the Western intelligentsia in our time, progress, not decline, is the defining characteristic of the historical grand meta narrative.

To rethink the world, one of the prerequisites is to rethink the Thesis of Progression; to consider that civilizational decline is possible and social improvement is not inevitable. But if the thesis is wrong and we are not guaranteed a future of social improvement, perhaps then the past has not followed this trajectory either. Perhaps we interpret the historical events in light of a framework that is complete nonsensical, perhaps even propagandistic. Is it any coincidence that it was a theorist in the victorious neoconservative political coup that declared democracy was “the end of history?” That the social socio-political framework had, under western democracy, been perfected?

When one begins to question the framework by which we interpret history, it leads to conclusions so immensely at odds with the way we have been brought up, it is almost surreal. Coming to terms with the fact that democracy as a socialization and publicization of the ability to both wield political power and affect the course of a nation via the voting booth (even if, in fact, a sort of democratically-source plutocracy has taken over and thus there is a manipulated and manufactured consent) is less than ideal is only the first step. Because if this is true, the great events of the modern age, most often interpreted as progress, are in fact up for grabs for us to argue about their costs and benefits.

The Austro-Libertarian has a framework in mind for the ideal legal situation of a society wherein private parties own all the means of production and can employ and dispose of this property in accordance with their own desires and preferences. That therefore there is a free market and the principles of property ownership guide the boundaries of permissible and legal human interaction.

But when we look at historical development, we do not merely and shallowly declare: it’s all worthless, for it all falls short of our ideal. But instead, we can actually, looking through the meta lens of historical analysis, sociology, and so on, challenge our own preconceptions about the progress and development of the West. So often we interpret events through modern western allegiances to egalitarianism, democracy, “the people,” social revolution, and the struggle for the culturally oppressed to overcome, that we forget about comparing older, less popular facets of western social thinking to historical problems. These might include private property, social values and institutions, family structures, and so on.

In this light, leftist upheavals such as the French Revolution and also the Bolshevik Revolutions were symptoms of a degeneration of society, not progress. These things are easy for most Austro-Libertarians to agree with; after all, the ideals that these left-thinking revolutionaries had were inherently (explicitly) socialistic and of course were a challenge to some of the things Austro-Libertarians hold most dear: private property and a limited (or no) state. But the point here is actually beyond this obvious A-L position. Because there are many libertarians who might say: they were on the right track, they were just misguided. They needed to throw off the tyrannical ancient regimes, it’s just that they should have had something better to replace it with.

Gordon Clark writes:

When the French Revolution brought The Terror instead of felicity, Condorcet, hiding from Robespierre and the guillotine, still maintained his belief in progress. It would be slower than they had thought, but there could never be a relapse into barbarism because the knowledge of physics must always increase.

But what if this too presumes the Thesis of Progress? That the spirit of their movement was the problem, not the particular goals they had in mind? In re-reading one of the most important books I’ve ever read from a “meta” level, Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism Revisited, I was struck by this passage on the Tsarist Russia (the Russian social structure that preceded the Revolutionary movement):

The misconceptions, moreover, about the Russian class structure that prevail in the Western world are so manifold and so deeply rooted that they seem ineradicable. The three brilliant volumes by Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu on late nineteenth-century Russia, L’Empire des tsars et les Russes, give a glimpse of a totally mixed society based neither on birth nor on money. Needless to say, the same impression is conveyed by the great Russian novelists of that period. Actually, before Red October Russia was Europe’s “Eastern America,” a country where social mobility was greater than elsewhere, where titles had none of the nimbus they had in the West, where fortunes could be made overnight by intelligent and thrifty people regardless of their social background. Skilled European workers and specialists in many fields emigrated to Russia rather than to the United States. And, even before 1905, knowing how to speak and to write gave total liberty.

The problem is that we in the west are so obsessed with revolution and the necessity of progress that we always jump to the conclusion that older models of socio-political structures are necessarily worse than their revolutionary replacements. And thus, when we read of moments in history when the standing order was undermined and torn to shreds, it is an opportunity to raise our fists in solidarity. The Thesis of Progress guides our reaction and we are predisposed to seeing revolutions as merely misguided, never thinking of the reality that existed in the standing order; we prefer to interpret events from the lens of the revolution rather than any other, perhaps more restrained and balanced, angle.

In his book defending Old Russia (perhaps not a book that is entirely agreeable in all its aspects) Dr. Matthew Johnson writes:

The purpose of The Third Rome is to alter the political universe of those who read it. In other words, it was to challenge the assumptions that underlie the liberal/conservative consensus in western countries. Such assumptions include the superstitious belief in progress, the linear (i.e. evolutionary) development of history and, importantly, the continued dominance of the idea that western democracies are morally superior to not merely the rest of the globe, but also superior to all systems of rule that have ever existed.

For the exoteria of western politics, one is routinely treated to myths about the linear development of European history from the “darkness” of the middle ages to the “light” of the Enlightenment, science and its progeny, postmodernism. The “tyranny” of medieval and early modern kings is contrasted to the benevolence of modern republics. The evils of feudalism are contrasted to the capital/state alliance. This makes up every introduction to political science in universities, and it is at the very nature of “civic discourse” as it is contrived in the west. The only difficulty is that it is nonsense.

At no time in global history have ruling classes amassed such centralized power: surveillance techniques, media power, armies, advanced weapons, computers and a disciplined bureaucracy that can track each and every citizen with pinpoint accuracy throughout his life form the vulnerable underbelly of the tripe concerning “democracy” and “republicanism” in the west. Tyranny previous to modernity was largely impossible: the technological apparatus needed to create “totalitarianism” simply did not exist. Only modernity can create tyranny.

What is shocking about this is the victory that the zeitgeist has had over our thinking about these things outside the boundaries of Progress. For instance, if we were to opine that perhaps things under the Tsarist social structure weren’t as bad as the Bolshevik terrors that followed, we would be cast to the wayside as radicals! Indeed it is now the radical and extremist position to challenge the revolutionaries. This is because radicalism and extremism are terms that are used to judge one’s compliance with the interpretive framework that the guardians of opinion have placed on us.

The point here is not to merely argue that “feudalism” or monarchy is better than democracy. Comparative analysis has its role, but the crux of the motivation for all this is merely to encourage a challenging demeanor toward the theory of progress.

Jacobin Magazine continues to urge its readers of the importance of the bolshevization of western thinking; in many ways, they are already winning. Every upheaval, every social trend, every modification in the sensibility of the American people, every legislative victory, every narrative shift… its always toward the left, it’s always interpreted as progressive improvement. You don’t accept gay marriage as legitimate? You are on the wrong side of history! The Thesis of Progress has overwhelmed us.

Indeed, under the Thesis of Progress, everything that gets in the way of the leftward march is “reactionary,” “fascist,” “bigoted,” and “hateful.” This explains why they see all those who stand opposed to revolutionary socialism and leftist social trends as playing the same role as the fascists and as Pinochet and as others who stood in the way of marxism. These anti-marxist movements were bad, according to the revolutionary marxist spirit of the age, not because they betrayed property rights or exercised positions of power at odds with the logic of property ownership, but because they got in the way of Progress. “Reaction” is a reaction to something. If Progress is good for its own sake, and if Marxism is progress, then any reaction to it is inherently bad– everything is reactionary, according to the marxist view of the world, which assumes the inevitability of progress.

When Mises wrote that the fascist movement played a hand in saving Europe, he was of course not talking about some inherent goodness in fascism or central domination of society– he was, after all, a classical liberal. Rather, he was saying that there was indeed a global push toward revolutionary marxism that was spreading throughout Europe and the very terrible fascistic movement put a stop to it. It’s absurd to think that Mises had sympathies with fascism as a socio-economic system and it is equally absurd to call his anti-marxism “reactionary” in the fascistic sense.

Thus, the modern mind can hardly understand those few writers and commentators who lament the fall of the old world as it gave way to the Revolutionary Society; who, as Zachary Garrett will explain in his forthcoming summer issue essay on Augusto del Noce, are troubled by the replacement of social authority with political power; who see in the modern world a certain regression, not progression, that took place not with Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but long ago in the collapse of more natural centers of social authority. As the western writers of history cheered the devastation of the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs as the older epoch gave way to a century of democratic statism, it is imperative that modern laymen begin to ask the question: at what cost?

Gordon Clark again has some particular insights, though perhaps not perfectly in accordance with everything we believe, related to the spirited decline of the west (please recall, this was written in 1951):

The most obvious evidences of a present social breakdown are of course the two world wars and the rumors of the third. However, the physical destruction of cities, factories, and homes; the casualties not only in battle but by disease and famine; and the dislocation of populations are by no means the only or even the most important evidences of the end of Western civilization. They are merely the most obvious to astigmatic believers in progress.

The results show that the first century of our era was the most peaceful of all; thirteenth century Europe was also an age of peace; and the nineteenth was a notable improvement over the two preceding. But the first quarter of the twentieth century, by itself, was more warlike than any hundred years except the third century B.C. in Italy; and if the second quarter should be figured in, even the third century in Italy would seem relatively peaceful. On this showing, our present troubles are no ordinary troubles.

War, however, is only one example of a more general condition.

As the love of liberty grows dim under socialistic suffocation, as coercion increases, the more brutal it will become. The basic methods of procedure were stated by Karl Marx, and they have been accepted, in varying degrees, by many who are not conscious of their origin. Marx was deeply interested in progress, and for him misery is a powerful instrument for gaining one’s goal. Tension and antagonism, the result of misery, are forces of progress. For this reason, a clever social planner will provoke violence and bloody conflicts. Happy men are weak, but if they can be made wretched, they can be stirred to action. Class must be played against class, and hatred must be stimulated. The economy of nations must be ruined by huge governmental expenditures that lead to bankruptcy. Demagogues, willing to be looked on as God, will deceive the people with impossible promises of freedom from want and freedom from fear.


If the Thesis of Progress is to be challenged, then we face the prospects that civilization can indeed decline. And if Mises is right that society is a result of rational human behavior then civilization is neither bound and determined to progress and nether is it bound to decline. Its rise and decline depend on the ideas that people put into action. All action is preceded by thinking; man acts in accordance with what he believes about the relationship between his acting and the world around him. Joe Salerno describes Mises’ theory of society as follows:

As the fruit of conscious thought and the instrument of action, Mises characterizes knowledge as having an “activistic basis.” “[K]nowledge is a tool of action. Its function is to advise man how to proceed in his endeavors to remove uneasiness.”

Mises defines society as “concerted action” or “cooperation” among human beings that is “the outcome of conscious and purposeful behavior.” As such, society is a consciously-devised “strategy,” “a man-made mode of acting” in the war against scarcity. Society is therefore a product of human reason and volition: “Reason has demonstrated that, for man, the most adequate means for improving his condition is social cooperation and division of labor. They are man’s foremost tool in his struggle for survival.”

Mises writes: “Human society is an intellectual and spiritual phenomenon. It is the outcome of a purposeful utilization of a universal law determining cosmic becoming, viz., the higher productivity of the division of labor. As with every instance of action, the recognition of the laws of nature are put into the service of man’s efforts to improve his conditions.”

Thus, the decline of the west, the result of which surrounds us, is not inevitable and it is not forever.

The masses favour socialism because they trust the socialist propaganda of the intellectuals. The intellectuals, not the populace, are moulding public opinion. It is a lame excuse of the intellectuals that they must yield to the masses. They themselves have generated the socialist ideas and indoctrinated the masses with them.

The intellectual leaders of the peoples have produced and propagated the fallacies which are on the point of destroying liberty and Western civilization. The intellectuals alone are responsible for the mass slaughters which are the characteristic mark of our century. They alone can reverse the trend and pave the way for a resurrection of freedom.

Not mythical “material productive forces,” but reason and ideas determine the course of human affairs. What is needed to stop the trend towards socialism and despotism is common sense and moral courage.

Austrian Economics | Property-Rights | Paleo-Culture

Austrian Economics | Property-Rights | Paleo-Culture

Essays on Economic, Political, and Social Theory

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CJay Engel

Creator and Editor of Austro Libertarian. Lives in Northern CA, runs several businesses, spends time with his family, and reads as much economics and political theory as possible.

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