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Beyond Progressivism

John Milbank at The Hedgehog Review: Toward a Personalist Metaphysics of History

Photo by Maciej Drążkiewicz / Unsplash

We remain at the end of history, and the only question remains how exactly this ending will end—in the end, finally. The world is everywhere dominated by a mutation of Western modernity, of technologism and a voluntarism of unchecked will both of the individual and of concentrated collective power that recognizes no objective and substantial good. This may be blended with revived yet still-decadent versions of non-Western civilizations, including those of China and India, yet that is but a detail.

At the same time and with seeming irony, the West itself is encouraged to hate its own past in its entirety: with less than coherence to scorn variously and even all at once Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Bible, Christianity, the cult of Romantic love, the rise of Science, Enlightenment, overseas Empire, and the Industrial Revolution.

Therefore, though only one world civilization survives, this civilization is not only in a phase of extreme decadence—unmoored from its core religious and mythical roots—but has also succumbed at its geographic core to a fashionable and feckless self-hatred.

Yet in the name of what, precisely? Only of the most decadent version of its own lingering yet all-pervasive identity, the dominance of which seems at one with the leakage of its own decay, like the oozing body of a suppurating giant. The name of this authorizing and entitling mutation is liberal progressivism: the final version of the West, because it is the name of its perpetuation for an indefinite perpetuity, paradoxically through disintegration.

For this exacerbated enlightenment, which can readily take the form of an apparent anti-enlightenment, progress is at once the ever greater release of the variety of natural and pregiven emotional inclination and at the same time the ever more variegated assertion of individual and variously aggregated wills. Such a sophistic will to power, which has rationalistically abandoned reason as a universalizing, normalizing, and hierarchizing myth, is necessarily unembarrassed about its incoherent dual focus upon natural tendency and elected performance, since it thrives only upon its constitutive elision of reason and truth as the mediating and selective link of the two. In the absence of any allowed metaphysical linkage between nature and meaning, it has to shuttle between one and the other, proclaiming equally, either turn by turn or simultaneously, the supposedly absolute character of, for example, innate sexuality or purely psychic gender identity, yet also the supposedly absolute character of consciously willed predilection. With its own twisted veracity, this will to power recognizes that postmodernism has forever exposed the all-too-human, ungrounded, and preferential character of reason, yet it still refuses to return to the confidence that reason may have in faith and to trust in its partial discernment of an infinitely subjective yet thereby truthful absolute.

Like a short-circuited postmodernism, forgetful of the latter’s abyssal skepticism, the new and dominant sophistry of the “woke” endeavors in this fashion to jam together the authority of matter and the authority of the will, in order to double the unanswerability of its postrational assertions of identity while concealing that they rest on opposite and incompatible bases. In this respect, it certainly fulfils the contradiction between natural freedom and cultural determination that defined liberal modernity from the outset, yet with a new shamelessness that would be blatant, were it at all self-aware.

According to this outlook, what is wrong with our own, Western identity is simply the particularity of its collective self-assertion as a system of meaning. That system can no longer be taken to be a gift, grounded in received mystery and redolent of the promise of future cultural fruits, because it is taken to be merely an assertion, which as aggregated and dominant must necessarily occlude the alternative assertions of “others.” The stream of such counterassertion must be unending, such that yesterday or today’s cause of emancipation is tomorrow’s source of tyranny and oppression.

A mere indeterminacy of sense and an endless postponement of meaningful conclusion as to objective value thus reveals itself, in full and constant collusion with the supposed progress of science and technology. An indefinite negativity of the cultural aspiration for the release of random willing always acquires its positive and half-legitimating content from physical nature, just as the positive truth of the sexual revolution was the birth control pill and a new technologization of procreation. If progress is the endless further release of a supposedly innate negative freedom of choice, it is also and perhaps more fundamentally the endless new disintegration, reorganization, and subjugation of the physical world. Hence all libertarian projects, including the Marxist one, become measurably “progressive” mainly in relation to material measure. To prove “progress,” one must have recourse to the quantitative, and all that can be quantified is matter reduced to extension and intension: to size, speed, concentration, and so forth.

This mode of merely material “progress” unlocks the further possibilities of a liberation from limits and restraints, particularly those imposed by the state. Yet negative freedom can be evidenced and secured in terms of public space only through its objective manipulation and transformation of material reality. In this way, the liberal project, which always tried to link political liberty among humans to technological control of nature, bends today ineluctably toward the transhuman and robotic. The freedom of humans to control external nature is evermore revealed to be what it was from the outset: the biopolitical control of humanity reduced, in one respect, to mere materiality. The inevitable contradiction adumbrated by Thomas Hobbes, whereby the unrestricted material force of our will that strives to control more constrained material forces is increasingly “resolved” according to the will of a tiny minority that controls and manipulates the passive bodies or the digitally drugged minds of all the rest of us.

In this regard, the Californian post-hippie economy of the virtual has proved to be the perfect vehicle for the post-postmodern short-circuiting earlier described. Here the mental and the physical meet in an apparent immediacy that disguises the lack of any truly wise and wisely erotic sifting, or genuine mediation: Apparent choice is granted instant physical validation; the slightest movement of a finger on a keyboard achieves an infinitesimal degree of power at the remotest distance. What is disguised here is the reality of an increasingly total alienation of our interiority to central forces of control and profiteering, such that even our spiritual nature is reduced to a proletarianized embodiment. The real mind and the real mastery lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, the sphere of the actually physical gets further reduced to an aggregated and exploitable wasteland, an outdoors increasingly too hostile for human to venture forth in.1

So we continue to live in the end of history, because the dominant mode of culture and technology remains Western, albeit in a terminally decadent mode of the latter. At the same time, this seeming finality is also not just in crisis but metacrisis. Today, we are not so much subject to passing tensions, potentially resolvable, as to the ultimate emergence of tensions latent in the very foundations of the modern. In the respective spheres of the political, the economic, and the cultural, we see, first, that the liberal contractual calculation that it pays to behave and obey the rules is collapsing in favor of systematic criminality; second, that the capitalist calculation that a random market will deliver increasing real wealth and sufficient parity of distribution is collapsing in favor of a quasi-feudal plutocracy; and third, that the cultural calculation that education can dispense with a transcendent reference point and rely upon respect for rights and calculations of utility is collapsing in favor of an anarchy of incompatible assertions and disagreement concerning even the useful and agreeable.

What we have, then, is the contradictory order of collapse, the rule of dissolution. In the course of the history of civilizations, this is perhaps not so unusual. What is striking now, however, is the dominance of one civilization in its phase of arguably ultimate decline, with no sign of a successor project on the horizon. How are we to make sense of all this?

In the nineteenth century, the various “metaphysics of history” were by and large intracivilizational: stories of progress that saw Western civilization as succeeding to earlier and more inadequate human ventures, and this civilization as itself continuously improving, even if through the course of inevitable conflict. The progress was often envisaged as being one in terms of ideas and reason, yet both Auguste Comte and Karl Marx realized the powerful, even determinative role of a lurking materialism. If progress in reason is objective and transparent, then this progress has to be measurable in a material equivalent. The measure of the latter can finally dispense with the measure of spirit, even if the question of the ontological status of spirit as free must lurk within Marxism. As the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and then Alexandre Kojève, the émigré philosopher who worked under Solovyov’s influence, realized, it is not so much that Marx inverts Hegel as that he deconstructs him, although in such a way that the Hegelian problematic of subjectivity still disturbingly lurks.2

Yet from the time of German Romanticism onward, this ethnocentrism with respect to universal history, which tended to regard the modern Western state (and Prussia in particular) as the culmination of incarnated reason, was also challenged. The alternative view was that Western linearity and progressivism are illusions. Instead, as the Greeks and Romans had once assumed or believed, all that we have in historical reality is a succession of civilizations that characteristically rise, decay, and then collapse. For this Romantic view, which gained further traction in the twentieth century when Europe was in obvious crisis (as proclaimed in the work of Oswald Spengler), the embrace of a cyclical movement of history goes along with the assertion of the primacy of the spiritual—and in a manner that now much less conflates the spiritual with the rationalistic.3 We cannot hope to advance to an irreversible self-transparency of reason, which tends to assert and justify itself through its manifest technological and biopolitical self-control, because civilization, on this neo-Romantic view, pivots about a tenuous participatory intuition of a suprarational absolute. Indeed, the entire pattern of a civilization seeks ritually to “represent” such an absolute, to echo the views of two prominent metahistorians of the last century, Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin. Sustaining this intuition depends upon a continuous disciplined restraining of baser human instincts, which tend toward egoistic fragmentation, dissolution, and thus to evil. In the long run, these dissolving instincts tend to prevail, and a civilization collapses.

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