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Counting the Cost of Progress

Mary Harrington at Plough (Book Excerpt)

Photo by Bethel Wossenyeleh / Unsplash

I was raised to believe in progress – the more-or-less religious framework that governs much of modern culture in the West. This framework says there’s a right side of history, and things can go on getting better forever.

It’s not self-evident, though, that humans have steadily progressed. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect once and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But pick a subject, and you’ll find some things are better, while other things have become worse. If you’re going to believe in progress, you have to define what you mean by progress. More stuff? More freedom? Less disease? Whatever your measure, you’ll find that what looks from one vantage point like progress mostly seems that way because you’re ignoring the costs. We’ve grown immeasurably richer and more comfortable in the last three hundred years, for example. But we did so on the backs of plundered, colonized, and enslaved peoples, and at the cost of incalculable environmental degradation. Meanwhile, torture in warfare hasn’t gone away. Warfare hasn’t gone away. Nor has hunger, misery, or human degradation.

Regardless, there are still many people who fervently believe in progress. Martin Luther King Jr. famously claimed: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Barack Obama loved the quote so much he had it woven into a White House rug.

In 2018 Steven Pinker wrote a 576-page book, Enlightenment Now, that piles up statistics – increased literacy and life expectancy worldwide, and less famine and war – to support his version of progress, which is to say in the terms set out by Enlightenment rationalism. (He dismisses increased economic inequality as irrelevant to progress.)

For our purposes here, the key is to notice the underlying structure of belief: that there exists an axis along which progress can be measured, and that we’re inexorably moving along that axis, from bad to less bad. Confusingly, this is often accompanied by the sense that even though this movement is supposedly inevitable, it also demands constant vigilance against the forces of reaction. Already back in 1991, social critic Christopher Lasch was asking how progressivism continued to assert such a grip when economic progress was certain to hit social and environmental limits in the end. More recently, legal scholar Adrian Vermeule has dissected what he calls “sacramental liberalism,” which he considers “an imperfectly secularized offshoot of Christianity.” This quasi-theological political persuasion, he argues, takes as its central sacrament the disruption of existing norms in pursuit of greater freedom, transformation, and progress toward absolute human perfection and freedom.

We need to re-imagine marriage as the smallest possible unit of resistance to overwhelming economic, cultural, and political pressure to be lone atoms in a market.

So what might it look like to pursue women’s political interests in practice, if we stop putting our faith in progress and ask instead what those interests might be in terms of where we stand now? We’ve inherited a set of memes from the twentieth century that connect feminism firmly with freedom. And we’re taking those memes into a set of material conditions in which technology is rapidly expanding the scope of what we have the freedom to attempt. The product of that is a fusion of once-emancipatory ideas with new technologies and commercial interests. Resisting this means pursuing not untrammelled freedom, but a broader project of staying human together. To this end, we’ll need to reckon with some of feminism’s unpaid debts, and to take a more realist stance on where the limits to individual freedom really are. We in the West are, perhaps, liberated enough. It’s not just women who need a freedom haircut; it’s everyone. And it’s my hope that we may be able to mitigate some of the negative side effects that may otherwise accrue from our effort to scrape the barrel of freedom. We can do this by taking the initiative on where and how we set about constraining ourselves, in ways that are in the common interest of both sexes.

Women can further shape how we live together in the rubble of absolute freedom by challenging the centrality of abortion and birth control to our sexual culture. There are well-documented asymmetries in how men and women view sexual desire and sexual access, along with the obvious asymmetries in the male and female reproductive roles. Medical technologies which eliminate those asymmetries physically haven’t also done so emotionally, and many women suffer at present less due to constraints on their ability to say yes to sex, as for lack of a reason to say no.

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