Progressive Pessimism. When the Left Loses Faith in Progress

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A recent, rather fluffy piece decrying the “pessimism” of some conservatives provides an opportunity to explore what is potentially a much more interesting topic: pessimism among progressives.1 These are thoughts that began percolating after some conversations with various people on the Left that took place before, during, and after a recent, interesting event in which I took part in Amsterdam.

The relationship between conservatism and pessimism is philosophically rich, since conservatism is generally premised on a view of decline. Something, at some point, for some reason, has gotten worse. A common characteristic of most conservatives is the belief that a better time lies in the past, and the course of history has been one of loss rather than progress. Of course, conservatives disagree vehemently among themselves when, and why, that loss has occurred, and in these debates lie some of the most interesting debates and a few broken friendships. But the impulse is the same: a sense of loss, regress, nostalgia, and foreboding clouds gathered on the horizon of future time. Conservatives can be dispositionally hopeful but not optimistic. Hope is an anticipation of an improvement in our condition, without the accompanying expectation that it will ever be fully achieved (at least not in this saeculum). It is one of the cardinal Christian virtues. Pessimism is a betrayal of Christian hope, but it can be found among those conservatives who have concluded that we are in a spiral of irreversible decline. Among most conservatives today, however, I would say that (oddly enough), there is more hope than pessimism: this seems a time of possibility, portents of a different dispensation, and the building of new institutions inspired by a clearer vision of what must be conserved. It is a time of hope, not optimism.

Progressivism – as the name suggests – takes the opposite view. Progressivism is largely a modern philosophy that began to inform a philosophical elite in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, and rested on an “immanentized” theory of sacred history: human history could be understood as having a providential trajectory toward inevitable improvement. Comte and Condorcet in France; Hegel, Kant, and then Marx in Germany; John Stuart Mill in England, and John Dewey and Herbert Croly in the United States, among many others, were proponents of a progressive theory of human history. Progressives are generally of the view that not only could improvement be measured in material terms, but moral improvement that would continue until utopia, or “heaven on earth,” was achieved in this world.

The modern political divide of the past three centuries has essentially boiled down to these two camps: whether the past is a source of wisdom or an era of horrors; whether culture and tradition were fortifications against decline or barriers to progress; whether politics was the means to preservation of imperfect decencies and virtues, or a tool of human perfectibility.

However, far more intriguing today than the relationship of conservatism and pessimism (which is, of course, more interesting than the recent posting suggests), is the fascinating rise of progressive pessimism. Progressives increasingly exhibit at least one characteristic features of conservatives: widespread belief that the past was better, the present is a period of irreversible decline, and the future is fit only for lamentation and regret.

One sees signs of progressive pessimism everywhere, but nowhere more evident than in anguish over climate change. The insistent demand that people stop having children, that humans are scourge and virus on the planet, reflects a growing apocalypticism on the Left.

The growing sense of despair on the Left is evinced in a wider range of views and moods. The disruption of the “inevitable” course of political progress – especially shattered by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – elicited an existential, even metaphysical breakdown on the Left that continues to be exhibited to this day. The young – who are usually the most optimistic and at times unrealistic about the promise of the future – instead are perhaps the most pessimistic about the future of any current generation, burdened by debt, the loss of patrimony, economic insecurity, and a foreboding sense of western decline and ongoing political unrest. The hope for some kind of worldly redemption now seems all but shattered, and the loss of religious faith leaves many without any source of hope or solace.

On the panel at the Amsterdam event, one of the interlocutors – a “critical race theorist” – decried the Obama presidency as a moment of false hope for race relations, and claimed that the lack of any actual improvement for people of color was proof that nothing can improve because the system is, and always has been, fundamentally ordered to racist, inegalitarian ends. On the second panel, several of the interlocutors echoed this sentiment, insisting that western imperialism has been a permanent and inexpungable feature of modern society – a modernity that believed it was advancing progress but was, in fact, merely engaging in rapine and exploitation under the cover of progressive nostrums. And this was part of a gathering devoted to the theme “the Revolution of Hope”!

The following evening, at a small dinner with several participants (in which I was to play my assigned role as the one, outlier conservative), the view was expressed around the table that nothing has ever gotten better. The history of humanity is one of selfishness, pillage, rapine, theft, greed, barbarism, and violence – the rule of the strong over the weak. The history of the world unfolds as the Athenians described to the Melians several millennia ago: the strong take what they want, the weak suffer what they must.

At this point, I found myself uncharacteristically assuming the role of … the progressive! Well, not quite – but I expressed surprise that so-called progressives had assumed the stance of resignation to a Hobbesian worldview, and found myself uncharacteristically in the position of attempting to offer some evidence for the prospects of human improvement (in contrast to the role that I usually play in such gatherings, as the person urging caution and humility regarding our ability to order the world according to our desires). I found myself in a most interesting debate, attempting to persuade so-called progressives that all human relations do not simply boil down to terror, oppression, and injustice.

My one, and perhaps only, argument was drawn from Tom Holland’s remarkable and powerful book, Dominion. Holland’s book describes an ancient world in which brutality and wanton disregard for human life was the norm. The world he describes – in which there is no compunction, regret, or sorrow over the cruel treatment of fellow humans – is a journey into a foreign land, an era that from our perspective today seems unrecognizable.

Holland points to the sea-change in worldview and morality that was effected by the rise of Christianity. Holland wrote the book not as a self-proclaimed Christian, but, as a student of antiquity, someone who believed in the need for frank recognition that something fundamental had changed in course of human history. He recognized this in the increasing strangeness of the antiquity in which he had immersed himself. Holland concludes his introduction,

The more years I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, so the more alien I increasingly found it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practiced a particularly murderous form of eugenics and trained their young to kill uppity Ubermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls, and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. Why did I find this disturbing? Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be a Christian…. [Yet] so profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted. [16-17]

John Locke – usually my bete noir – had something of this same recognition in a passage in his book The Reasonableness of Christianity. Remarking on the moral code of the ancients – who had the fullness of reason at their disposal, including the philosophical insights of a Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and the like –

“but yet had hitherto failed all mankind in a perfect rule; and we see, resolved not the doubts that had risen amongst the studious and thinking philosophers; nor had yet been able to convince the civilized parts of the world, that they had not given, nor could, without a crime, take away, the lives of their children, by exposing them….”

No moral code based solely upon reason could arrive at today’s widespread view that it is wrong to “expose” – callously murder – unwanted children. Of course, Locke himself might be surprised at the return of this callousness in our abortion regime. Nevertheless, our very current national agonies over the legality of abortion are a testimony to the staying power of Christianity even in an increasingly post-Christian era, for some, at least, a residual belief that the weak and infirm deserve our care, love, and protection.

Holland suggests that today’s secularists are in a profound state of self-denial about the sources of modern “humanitarianism.” Recognition of human dignity wasn’t born of “progress” as that term is commonly understood – that is, a theory of history that suggests an inexorable upward trajectory of human moral improvement. Rather, the Incarnation and what followed was something entirely new, a break in the often cruel repetition of history. This “something new” is what Christians recognize, and anticipate anew, during this season of Advent.

To these observations, my dinnertime interlocutors understandably pointed to any number of atrocities committed during the era of Christendom and in its wake, down to the present-day wanton slaughter of civilians in the course of modern warfare, as well as to the less sensational but no less mortal and desperate condition of impoverished people across the globe. I urged consideration that we now have a widespread moral standard by which to measure, evaluate, condemn, and – one hopes – correct these actions and inactions. They responded that such moral appeals were merely a veil to shroud omnipresent forms of cruelty and oppression that have not changed an iota since the advent of human time.

Perhaps these progressives were exceptions to the rule in the West – but I think they are a harbinger of where the Left is going, and these views are explanatory of today’s more radicalized leftist political project. Pessimism is the flip side of optimism: pessimism is what replaces the optimism of the disappointed progressive. We should not be surprised at the timing of this rise of an increasingly pessimistic left: America was the land of Progress, the beacon of optimism of a better human future. As the American empire’s hold on the global imagination wanes, and its actions become ever-more visibly simply the exercise of raw power politics, global disillusionment with the progressive project is to be expected. The end of the American Century also spells the end of the illusion of Progress, a period at the end of a longer and larger story that began at the advent of the modern era.

Whither then the Left, which has been defined throughout the modern era as the Party of Progress?

The Left today increasingly embraces a form of Nietzscheanism, accusing all Christianized moral claims are merely a cover for power. Like Nietzsche, moralized claims are an effort to control and limit the freedom and self-expression of those who transcend such moral constraints. For this reason, Christian morality is particularly objectionable: not only is it wrong, but more fundamentally, it’s merely hypocrisy. The aim of Left increasingly is not “progress” – the moral perfection of humanity – but liberation from the constraints of “slave morality.” This project increasingly involves the effort to eliminate of hypocrisy: not by seeking to match our actions to our claims – which will always be imperfect – but by eliminating any moralistic claim whatsoever. Indeed, the Left’s project involves the positive celebration of a- and immorality as forms of liberation from these demeaning constraints – which include today the celebration of a woman’s abortion, embrace of every lifestyle choice and positive affirmation of every sexual expression (or nearly – residual Christianity still is sufficient to proscribe and denounce those who support sex with children – but don’t expect these efforts to go away).

Nietzsche believed that the Christian morality of sacrifice, humility, and charity – what he called the “transvaluation of values” – was the mechanism that led to the suppression of the genuinely great and courageous in favor of rule by a mediocre democracy. Unsurprisingly, today’s Left Nietzscheanism is deployed for the benefit of a narrow ruling class. Disillusioned progressives believe that human motivation, at base, is only the will to power. As they abandon a belief in progress, expect that residual claims to democracy will also diminish. Instead, the de facto preference for those willing to act on behalf of the will-to-power will emerge quite explicitly.

In the face of a Left that seems increasingly likely to abandon the illusion of progress and instead embrace a version of Nietzsche, the question facing a New Right today is (to slightly paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre), a counter-Nietzsche – or Christ? We are at a genuine crossroads leading to doubtless very different post-liberal futures.

Patrick J. Deneen

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