Transcribed from the 2 February 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Progress, since the beginning of the capitalist economy and the politics that were associated with it, has been the religion that accompanied capitalism everywhere it went.
Chuck Mertz: Our uniquely European faith in progress is a system of dominance founded in racism and moral superiority that has been destructive to our planet—even destroying civilizations that had actually shown more progress than ours. Here to help us examine our misguided faith in progress, author Ben Ehrenreich wrote the article “After the Storm: Progress and the Demented Quest for Historical Purity,” which appeared in The Baffler number 43. Ben is the author of the novels Ether and The Suitors. His latest nonfiction book is 2017’s The Weight of the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Ben.
Ben Ehrenreich: Thank you, Chuck.
CM: I hate to parse a title of somebody’s work, but what do you mean by “historical purity,” and who is seeking this historical purity?
BE: To make a really complicated essay as simple as I can: two things happened in about the middle of the eighteenth century, at roughly the same time. One is the appearance of the first articulations of what we now understand as the narrative of progress—this notion that things are improving, that time is on a one-way track and it’s getting better. And one thing that I note in the piece is that time is understood also in terms of space—places on the globe. Progress at once works in time—it traces down a straight arrow from savagery to the heights of European civilization—and it works as a way of placing people on the globe into this hierarchy. In the narrative of progress, the place of the present, which is also the place of the future, is Europe. This is where things are getting better. And the place of the past is for the most part understood as the Americas, which is a savage and barbaric land peopled by barbarian tribes.
Around the same time, there was something else going on, which a scholar named Martin Bernal wrote a lot about in a titanic three-volume work called Black Athena: the ethnic scrubbing (we could say ethnic cleansing) of European heritage—the heritage of the Renaissance, of European “civilization.” If Europe were going to be on top, if Europe were going to be the great inheritor of all of human history, it needed to give itself a heritage, and it needed to give itself a very pure lineage. It did that in various ways by denying the African, Middle Eastern, and Mesopotamian links to what we now understand as classical civilization: Greek and Roman culture.
During the Renaissance, which is not that distant in time from this period, people didn’t understand themselves as the greatest civilization on Earth; they believed very clearly that the greatness was in the past. Greatness belonged to the Greeks, and to the Egyptians. They had no problem admitting the greatness of other civilizations that were not European.
This stops beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, so that by the nineteenth century we had this fiction (which we still have today; we see it coming out very clearly in the heightened racial discourse since Trump’s election) that there is this thing called “Western civilization,” which is a straight line of progress that goes from the Greeks—existing in statued purity; it’s Reason suddenly landing on the Earth—through the Romans, into Europe, and eventually across the Atlantic to the United States. So we have this great heritage that is purely European—everyone else is irrational, awful savages who would be kicking around in the dirt if it weren’t for us.
We see this reflected very clearly in Trump’s comments about African nations; we see this in the comments of his supporters all the time, and in the discourse of many of our highly respected public intellectuals. This is very clearly a discourse of white supremacy.
CM: That was a fantastic overview. One of the things I was thinking about when I was reading your article was how this kind of thinking about “Western civilization” affects our imagination, how it creates a more Balkanized world, how Europe turning its back on past civilizations after revering them for so long kind of Balkanized the world and made Europe in our imagination, the Middle East in our imagination, Asia in our imagination—none of these things really existed.
Was the world more globalized far before globalization? Was it more globalized before 1750 than it is today? Because it seems like this reverence for past civilizations would cross borders and not make us as Balkanized; it would make us more globalized. Were we more of a globalized culture before globalization?
BE: Going back millions of years, since humans left Africa, humans have been moving constantly. Global trade routes go back much farther than we thought they did. Globalization is an absolutely ancient phenomenon.
Europe, until the fourteenth century, was not a particularly sophisticated or cosmopolitan place. It was an incredibly backward place. At the time, if you wanted to look at where the most exciting civilizations on the planet were, you would not look to Europe. You’d be much more likely to look to the Indian subcontinent, to China, to the Americas, to parts of Africa, where there were civilizations that were far more technologically and intellectually developed than Europeans were.
But in 1492 the Europeans happened across the Americas, and more or less accidentally (not entirely accidentally, of course—they did what they could to help it along), through the help of bacteria and viruses, wiped out most of the continent, and did their best to kill the people that disease didn’t take care of and then bring all that wealth back to Europe. With that moment, with that conquest, Europe was able to start telling itself this story about its superiority, and to believe it, and to try to figure out ideological ways to account for it, narratives that would justify it.
Obviously, we’re still dealing with this.
CM: If Europeans really believe in that notion of progress, then how is twentieth century fascism allowed? How does fascism fit into the notion of faith in progress?
The way we are living is destroying the planet—not only for us but for many generations to come and for many other species besides the human species. There were people living in this hemisphere for millennia before we were, who didn’t mess it up like we did, who managed to live with it in a considerably greater level of harmony than we have. In a very short period of time, we have destroyed it. So it’s kind of hard to say that we won.
BE: If we look at the intellectual roots of European fascism—Italian fascism or Nazism—they had a profound belief in progress which is deeply tied to a lot of eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers who are still quite accepted today. There was a profound and even utopian belief (although we look back on it with horror) that human society could be perfected.
Certainly if we look at the architecture of fascism, whether it’s in Germany or in Italy, it calls back on these classical roots. The intellectuals around Hitler did everything they could to tell a story of racial purity that went back for centuries, and that is very much the same story I’m describing here: cutting off and rejecting all connections to the rest of the world in order to establish a pure lineage.
CM: You write, “The first explicit articulation of faith in progress is generally agreed to have appeared in a speech delivered in 1750 by the brilliant political economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, then just twenty-three. It is surely no coincidence that an early evangelist of economic liberty would also be the first to lay out the ideology that would everywhere accompany the spread of capitalism.”
Then you quote Turgot writing in 1773: “All branches of commerce ought to be free, equally free, and entirely free.”
Can capitalism succeed without faith in progress? How much does capitalism depend on faith in progress to succeed?
BE: I don’t know if capitalism can succeed at all. But progress, since the beginning of the capitalist economy and the politics that were associated with that, has been the religion that accompanied capitalism everywhere it went.
Climate change is what got me thinking about a lot of this stuff, trying to understand what was happening. If we accept that climate change is real, and we accept that it’s caused by human endeavors and industrialization, then we can’t also really believe that capitalism worked out that well. And we can’t believe that technological civilization as we know it, industrial civilization, worked out that well. And we also can’t really believe that any of this story that people in the West have been telling themselves for the last 270-odd years is accurate.
Things may have gotten better for a little while for some number of people on the global level, but “progress” is actually destroying everything, and it’s going to make it impossible for human life to survive here. That’s a pretty serious challenge to this narrative.
CM: When people complain about the lack of indigenous rights and the treatment of Native Americans, I’ve heard people from the far right retort with “Too bad, we won.”
What would you say to someone who argues that European civilization must have been (and must continue to be) more advanced because it is what dominates the areas that were once controlled by indigenous people? Is the United States proof that European culture is and was more advanced than indigenous cultures everywhere?
BE: I’d go back to what I was just saying. The one very painful bit of truth that we all have to figure out how to reckon with right now is that the way we are living is destroying the planet—not only for us but for generations to come. For many, many generations and for many other species besides the human species. So it’s kind of hard to say that we won.
There were people living in this hemisphere for millennia before we were, who didn’t mess it up like we did, who managed to live with it in some considerably greater level of harmony than we have. In a very short period of time, we have destroyed it not only for ourselves but very likely for centuries to come. I think that’s pretty hard to rebut unless you take the denialist path of saying climate change isn’t real.
CM: Is faith in progress, then, also faith in elites? Do elites need the masses to have faith in progress to remain as the elites? Does our belief that we are always moving forward keep them in power? And once we no longer have the belief that we are continually moving forward, is that when the elites lose power?
BE: It’s complicated. It’s worked for elites, but it’s also been a powerful ideology over the last couple hundred years for people who are not in power, for various revolutionary groups. Believing that the way things are isn’t the way that they have to be, believing that we can perfect human society through our own actions, has been really powerful for people who were excluded from power.
Connected to the narrative of progress is an understanding and a belief (a fairly religious and spiritual one) that god is in all of us, and that we can be what god is. This powerful, mystical belief in our own capabilities is something which people have often used to combat elites and combat injustice and try to make societies more just.
I don’t want to simply say that this is a racist ideology that we have to be done with. It’s also been a very powerful source of change for the better, and if we were to entirely get rid of the belief that we can affect our own lives and the way our society is organized in the world, we wouldn’t have much chance of getting through the challenges we’re facing now.
CM: You write, “As an ideology that put European culture at the pinnacle of human history and consigned everyone else to time’s lowland wastes, progress would function at once as an explanation of European dominance and a rationale for the slaughter and pillage on which it depended and continues to depend.”
How much do you see this idea of progress, or faith in progress, at work within, say, Trump’s policy in Venezuela? How do we view the world differently when we see progress as a project of dominance, not of actual progress that benefits anyone but the conqueror?
If you don’t believe that there is anything sacred except for you, if you don’t believe that there is anything capable of thought or consciousness except for you, then it’s really easy not only to wipe out people who you regard as savages, but to rape the Earth, to regard the Earth as dead. This works very well as an ideology for capitalism.
BE: It’s an ideology of short-sighted elites. How many years is it since the toppling of Saddam Hussein?Sixteen years, right? It’s now sixteen years after the last time American elites, with the enthusiastic support of oil companies and arms dealers, toppled a government thinking they could take the oil and rearrange things as they liked and everything would be fine—instead we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people killed, an absolute disaster. There are people like John Bolton and some of the neocons who have worked their way into Trump’s administration who once again have this patently insane belief that they can remake the globe according to their desires. I think these people believe that they are a force for good, and that they are doing the “Lord’s work” in a way. It requires a pseudo-religious faith in order to believe that.
CM: You write of the mid-eighteenth century political economist Turgot: “The first thing he hastened to toss over was the notion that all things are alive and infused with divinity. This idea, still pervasive in the animistic beliefs of conquered and not-yet-conquered peoples across the globe, in the folk beliefs of Europe and in the more pantheistic strands of its esoteric theologies, was by Turgot’s reckoning one of those delusive analogies to which the first men, in their immaturity, abandoned themselves with so little thought.
“The task of denuding the natural world of agency and divinity was apparently an important one and could not be neglected; for the grand procession of progress to march, the stage had to be first cleared of rivals: ‘All the world must be dead and man alone alive, rushing to the glory of his fate.’”
How much did Turgot set the stage for not only European colonialism, institutional racism, slavery, and so many other horrible things, but also for rapacious capitalism and the lack of any concern for the environment or how one’s own impact on the environment might impact your own quality of life? To what degree did Turgot set in motion the environmental destruction that we’re suffering from today?
BE: It’s not just Turgot. We see this earlier in Descartes. We see it in a lot of French Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinking, as it spread around Europe, had a real disdain for the notion that anything was alive, or had consciousness or thought at all, other than humans—humans alone were possessed of Reason. This replaced, even in Europe, deep strands of belief that imagined the divine alive in everything, imagined that the sacred pulsed through the entirety of the universe—which is certainly what a lot of non-European traditions have believed as well.
If you don’t believe that there is anything sacred except for you, if you don’t believe that there is anything capable of thought or consciousness except for you, then it’s really easy not only to wipe out people who you regard as savages, but to rape the Earth, to regard the Earth as dead. This works very well as an ideology for capitalism, as an ideology that looks at things and sees only the wealth that can be extracted from them, that looks at the Earth and all its diversity and beauty and sees only what can be mined from it and sold.
It’s with that kind of thinking that we start to map out the absolutely extraordinary levels of devastation that have been visited on the planet in the last century and a half.
CM: You write of the mid-nineteenth century, “To question faith in progress with any seriousness was to marginalize yourself as a crank, a heretic, or a fool.”
To what extent has that changed from the mid-nineteenth century? After all, in the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher had TINA (“there is no alternative”), and many of the pro-financialized neoliberal globalizationists of the mid-1980s and 1990s had the same dismissiveness of anyone questioning their faith in the progress of globalization.
Are those who question progress still today seen as cranks, heretics, and fools, and dismissed?
BE: It still puts you out there. Even in the nineteenth century there were philosophical figures like, say, Friedrich Nietzsche who were profoundly suspicious of this narrative. And certainly after the First World War, there was an entire generation of people who were disgusted by this narrative and whose entire intellectual formation came out of a rejection of it.
But despite the fact that that war was followed by another even more destructive war, because it’s basically the ideology of capitalism, it has remained as the core self-understanding of our culture, with the strength of a religious belief, that things are getting better, that technology and science will bring us there, that human rationality can solve all problems. No matter how many thinkers have questioned it, no matter how many artists have rejected it, that still remains quite fundamental to the way most people in the US and Europe (and large parts of the rest of the globe now) see the world. And it’s been fundamentally destructive.
CM: We’ve had guests on our show over the last several years who argue that neither the British empire, nor any imperial project, nor the US superpower could have happened without capitalism and that capitalism couldn’t have succeeded without colonialism, and colonialism could not have succeeded without slavery.
Can we blame it all on faith in progress? Did faith in progress cause slavery and all the evils of colonialism as well as the great power of empires over the past five hundred years?
BE: I don’t think it’s quite that simple. There’s been slavery in human societies for thousands of years. But this belief in progress has accompanied capitalism in a way that we can’t discern one as the cause and the other as the effect. It has accompanied capitalism’s reach across the globe, which has been experienced as colonialism. You can’t really separate them from one another.
“Progress” came about as a result of the European conquests of the rest of the planet in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as a way for Europe to justify and understand what it had done and the wealth that it had gained through these conquests. It became especially powerful in the nineteenth century both because it functioned so well alongside of capitalism and because it continued to justify the genocides that went along with colonialism.
As European and North American powers divided the globe up among themselves and authored horrendous crimes on every corner of the globe, they needed to tell themselves that they were superior and virtuous, and they found a way to do it. That’s what the ideology of progress has worked for and still works for.
As long as you only see yourself, you are not capable of moral action in any real sense. The only way to do right in the world is to see the world, to see other people and other beings in their suffering and in their strength. If you fail to see that, you can only keep making the same mistakes again and again.
CM: You write, “If Europe represented the mature stage of human development, it would need a lineage.” And you talk about this lineage going back to the Greeks, as you mentioned earlier. “That this image [of Greeks being the epitome of human civilization] would not have been recognized by either their Greek contemporaries or by the inhabitants of the continents being mowed under by Western civilization was irrelevant to the larger project of historical reclamation. Plato and Aeschylus became the heritage of the English, the Germans, and the far-flung white Americans. Greek joined Latin as an indispensable part of the education of the European elite. Classics emerged as a discipline.”
Does our study of Greek civilization and the classics, our reverence of them—whether we realize it or not—reinforce a false European connection to Greece based on ideas that are filled with white and European supremacy?
BE: Absolutely. Educated upper class Europeans knew Latin before the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but they started to learn Greek then too, and to understand Greeks as somehow their ancestors. This is one of the things that allowed the English to feel pretty okay about going to Greece and taking all of the lovely sculptures and putting them in the British Museum, because it kind of belonged to them to begin with; it was “theirs” more than the people who lived there and didn’t know how to take care of it.
It’s also important to understand that the notion we have of who the Greeks were and what that means—that they were the “fathers” of our civilization—is completely distinct from how they understood themselves. The Greeks were in awe of the Egyptians, and had no problem talking about what they had borrowed from them. They also had no problem talking about what they had taken from points further east: from the Phoenicians, from Levantine cultures. They understood themselves in a context which we have pretty much erased when we talk about the Greeks.
All of those lovely white marble sculptures used to be painted. They used to be very colorful, and now they’re all white. A similar process has happened: all the color has been bleached out so we can remember them as these pure white people, just like us.
CM: On the idea of faith in progress and European superiority, you write, “It’s quite a fantasy: the trafficker in human suffering reborn as enlightened liberator, his transformation gratefully acknowledged by the charges he so recently tormented. The roots of white savior complex run at least two and a quarter centuries deep.” You trace those roots back this idea of faith in progress.
Does faith in progress, then, rationalize things like humanitarian military intervention—that we’re invading a foreign country for its own good, that we know better because we are better?
BE: Absolutely. The second great early text about progress came form the Marquis de Condorcet about forty-some years after Turgot. He’s a bit more self-critical, in some ways, than Turgot is. He’s willing to talk about some of the horrors that Europeans have authored, such as slavery. But in his vision, it would be Europeans who would right these wrongs, and they would do it so they can guide their victims towards a greater civilization, which is their own civilization.
There’s absolutely a paternalistic notion that Europeans will guide the rest of the world to greater civilization and take everyone along with us on this wonderful road to progress. We still see that in the justifications for the colonial adventures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it’s there in some of the rhetoric that we would hear out of Bush and Rumsfeld in their invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t really see it from Trump, because he’s not really articulate enough to say these things, but we see it from some of the figures in his administration as well.
CM: You write, “Condorcet was a brave man and every bit the liberal hero. He had only the most passionate and eloquent words of condemnation for slavery, the oppression of women, and the brutal exploitation of colonized people. Still, his certitude rested on a deep and unquestioned conviction in the moral superiority of Europe despite all the dizzying, fast-multiplying evidence to the contrary.”
To what extent do you believe a feeling of moral superiority can undo all the good one may try to accomplish by being antiracist, by being feminist, by opposing slavery and exploitation—to what degree does a feeling of moral superiority actually undermine causes like being in opposition to slavery and exploitation?
BE: I’m not sure it’s the feeling that undermines it. But so long as you believe in your own superiority, you won’t see anything at all except yourself. There’s a sense in which progress works as a beautiful mirror that Europeans have looked into for the last couple hundred years, which reflects back a very beautiful, hazy, noble image of ourselves. But as long as you’re only seeing yourself, you are not capable of moral action in any real sense. The only way to do right in the world is to see the world, to see other people and other beings in their suffering and in their strength. If you fail to see that, you can only bumble and mess things up, and only keep making the same mistakes again and again.
CM: You mentioned the work Black Athena by Martin Bernal, and how he cautions of history: “There are no simple origins.” You explain, “For Bernal, it is never a question of a direct and singular genetic inheritance, of roots leading up to a trunk and bifurcating into branches. Human history, he suggests, is more like a river splitting off into tributaries, merging and diverging again and again, perhaps like a crown joining arms and letting go, splitting into smaller groups that at times reach out to clasp hands with one another.”
How does viewing history as a river rather than having faith in progress change the way we view history? Does viewing history as a river to some extent even potentially de-weaponize a historical view based on faith in progress?
BE: I should hope so. If we don’t allow ourselves to believe that we are in possession of this one lineage but instead understand that there are infinite intricate intersecting lineages everywhere, then it’s a lot harder to justify the kinds of domination that we’ve been talking about.
Our only hope as humans at this point is not just to understand that this is a question of all of us being interconnected to one another, but also a question of all species and all forms of life being interconnected to one another. This is our only hope at this point: not to see ourselves as an exceptional, superior creature, but rather one that is intricately bound up with everything else that’s out there, to reject the hierarchical views that we’ve held onto for so long which put us on this pinnacle above everything else, and to understand that we’re all in this together, we all need each other. This understanding of ourselves as special and unique and superior has only led and will only lead to our own destruction.
CM: Do we need to lose faith in progress in order to progress? Do we need to get away from the idea that we are inevitably headed towards a Star Trek utopian future in order for us to actually get to a Star Trek utopian future?
BE: Yeah. We have to reckon with the demands of the future, of our children, of our grandchildren, of all those generations we don’t know yet—and reckon with the demands of the past, that the dead make on us, that our ancestors make on us. We have to reach out to all of them. That means getting rid of the belief that time is a one-way track that will inevitably lead some of us to perfection. We have to shed that entirely. Only by doing that is there any hope at all that we can learn to live with each other and with other species on this planet, and with the planet itself and every other speck of dust in the cosmos.
CM: Ben, thank you so much for being on our show.
BE: Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.
Featured image: unauthorized crop from some of Brian Froud’s great fairy artwork