Wednesday 1 July 2015

What is 'progressive'? Thomas Smith on the ecomoderns on the Pope

Further to my last post, Thomas Smith at Dissident Voice has a strong critique of Mike Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and Mark Lynas' dismissal of the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si.

Of particular relevance is this on the vagueness of the term 'progressive':
Perhaps the ecomodernists should discard this vague generality of labelling themselves ‘progressive’ as it is too often used to gloss over the important details. ‘We believe in growth’, say the ecomodernists, ‘therefore we’re progressive’. ‘I put forward a sustainable steady state and/or degrowth future’, I respond, ‘therefore I’m progressive’. Nobody wins the argument, and the term is rendered an empty signifier.
This is, of course, the risk with any term that has such wide and varied usage. I, for one, can't see why the adjective 'progressive' should have such a simplistic and necessary relation to techno-economic 'progress' (i.e. growth).

Smith writes in his conclusion:
‘Progress’ is a myth. Societies do not develop in any linear fashion, and capitalist modernity is not the end of history. Sure, some things are probably ‘better’, many things are worse. There are no universals.
There is a defence of 'progress' against its critics that runs: 'But don't you want things to get better? Conservative!' Against that knee-jerk, I think that Smith is correct. It is the sense of 'progress' as a definite direction, an arrow that can be either followed or diverged from (and diverged towards something that is, by definition, 'less good') that is the problem.

Just as a steady-state economy might actually be better for those who live with it, an historical trajectory without 'progress' (in the modern/ecomodern sense) wouldn't mean that the poor must stay poor and the rich must stay rich. It wouldn't mean the end to change.

For things to improve under a steady-state economy, wealth would have to be more equitably shared because economic activity would no longer be orientated towards future surpluses. Under a 'steady-state' history, the situation might be likewise. It wouldn't mean stasis, the end of time. It'd mean a different conception of time.