The Irony of Progress

The character of what is called progress contains a deep irony. In the flavour of dramatic irony, we as an audience can seemingly see ahead of our expert narrators, yet the play goes on as we are told that, no, everything is going according to plan. In fields as diverse as ecology, agronomy, economics or medicine there is a disconnect between what is witnessed and what is accepted. These fields are increasingly side-lined in developed economies which are dominated by their service and administrative sectors[1]/tasks[2], creating a loss of knowledge.

Loss of manufacturing capacity and the enslaving of sovereignty to free trade appear as easy options when there is abundant military protection of international trade routes, ideological conformity within global institutions and access to primary resources across markets. However, as recent events testify, from coronavirus shutdowns causing supply backlogs and geopolitics overriding trade networks with the loss of Russian natural gas to sanctions and Chinese hoarding of lithium and cobalt in Africa and Asia, the assumptions of progressive economic growth through sectoral concentration and comparative advantage only work when others play the same game.

Growth of international trade and the subsequent reduction of local knowledge breeds fragility in communication, logistics and security. The innate complexity of these forces requires investments in infrastructure and security architecture, particularly naval control of trade routes and maintained operations of canals and deep sea ports. It further requires intermodality of transportation, particularly road freight, to split and deliver large cargoes onto distribution centres and wholesalers. The nature of just-in-time supply networks is the instantaneous movement of goods to meet varied demands, being able to quickly change production lines while also reducing the requirement for extra supply or slack. Therefore, when one element is tipped, the others struggle or fall.

These complexes of production, transportation, security and infrastructure have multiple varieties (military-industrial complex, agricultural-industrial complex, financial complex, etc.) which contain similar dynamics but differing ends within the wider field of interchange/exchange. One of the reasons for the growth of a vast administrative sector (and with it the development of a professional-managerial strata with its own class interests and sectoral demands[3]) is the organisational complexity emerging from the interactions of different loci.

“The demands made by tools on people become increasingly costly. This rising cost of fitting man to the service of his tools is reflected in the ongoing shift from goods to services in over-all production. Increasing manipulation of man be- comes necessary to overcome the resistance of his vital equilibrium to the dynamic of growing industries; it takes the form of educational, medical, and administrative therapies”[4]. The very way Illich uses the term service suggests not a post-industrial economic strategy, but an evolutionary stage of progress, from the grit and dirt of primary resources and the labour of manufacturing to the knowledge-focused nature of interaction and information that make services what they are.

Tools, or institutional complexes, are the means through which such progression is actioned. During the Progressive Era figures like Dewey and Wilson prised technocracy as the institution for socio-economic overhaul. The rigorisation of life, from education to the corporate form, create a tightly controlled narrative structure and hierarchy, with the technostructure[5] as the primary organ for the production and streamlining of knowledge within complex institutions. As the industrial revolution was the chaining of the “animal machine” to the “iron machine”[6], thereby removing autonomy from the peasant class and integrating them into a machine, technocratic control is the expansion of the technostructure and through it the creation of industrial and social complexes.

Technostructural expansion and the growth in complexity though produce negative feedback and externalities. The history of progress as described in the Whigs’ accounts and that has become the basis of liberal thought – the inexorable growth in human potential and the telos of technology as the method for such potential – meets its bounds in the inegalitarian nature of talents and power as well as the exhaustion of the systems they attempt to enchain. For example, agriculture was the predominant form of work for much of human history until the 19th and 20th centuries. It was backbreaking, difficult and inconsistent considering the continual potential for crop failure and famine. The progressive narrative sees the development of the industrial revolution as a saviour for agricultural labourers, providing them choices they never had before and allowing them to no longer rely on the land for their goods.

Historically there is truth to this. The Scottish clearances for example were not simply a violent expropriation of land from the peasant classes. Particularly in the Lowlands many moved into industrial occupations (such as weaving or brickmaking) as a means to supplement their land income and move away from rental indenture[7]. There was voluntary choice in a number of these occupational transformations. But this cannot ignore the history of enclosures and the brutal clearances of people from their lands for industrial expansion and new agricultural technologies (technologies meaning new methods of working the land and making profit from it). Not only were economic relations suddenly and violently upturned, but the cultural relations between classes were altered. Feudal duties became employment contracts. Landlessness was a means of divorcing a peasantry from its minor means of independence and producing a proletariat.

Agriculture never went away. While industrial forces cleared lands and removed substantial forms of agricultural employment or landed work, the necessity of growing food and rearing animals remained. More efficient land use, as with the move toward cash crops and the expansion of sheep and cattle runs meant less need for a farm workforce and more need for land, not for cottagers or commoners, but for industrial efficiency. A massive expansion of staple crops followed, from wheat and oats to potatoes and other vegetables. Farms were now dedicated to one or two crops, with minimal rotation between fields so as to maximise output. Pastoral farming followed a similar trajectory, as animals became increasingly concentrated into grazing fields. The 20th century doubled down on this premise, as factory farming and fertilisers allowed for further expansion of output. Farmers were being told to make their farms bigger, more mechanised and more concentrated. Mixed agriculture went altogether apart from specialist farms and organic growers.

Now we can see the underside to this progressive expansion. Significant soil erosion throughout the world, particularly in areas with previously fertile soil and a long history of agricultural output. To eke out harvests fertiliser is essential, no matter the costs in terms of runoff or in terms of soil health. Even as the facts of soil erosion are noted, fertiliser use either continues on its course[8] or expands[9]. “The on-site costs of soil erosion are thus internalized by pricing them directly into the economic decision making of the land user. As long as cash flows remain positive, land users, by themselves, thus hardly have an incentive to adopt land conservation practices to contain soil erosion because the costs of adopting these technologies are high and occur immediately” [10]. When the incentive structure skews toward massification and extensive land use for monoculture or cattle, this only increases the costs associated as farmers rely on renting land and buying in inputs.

Expansion of the food supply then breaks the Malthusian trap, allowing for a population explosion as has happened over the 20th century. But as the food supply becomes threatened by climatological shifts, growth in animal diseases amongst industrially-processed cattle and the depletion of soil health, there can be no response. A move toward purely organic agriculture and/or food sovereignty necessitates a huge shift of resources and the limitation of food supply in the short to medium term. In effect, that means potential death for large portions of the world population. But such is the hubris of our progressive vision that neither can be reckoned with. We can no longer accept death as the outcome of stretching resources beyond their natural limits, thus decreasing their potential in the long term.

Farming is only one area where industrial complexes wreak havoc, promising riches today while ignoring immiseration tomorrow. It can be seen in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns[11], masks[12] and vaccines[13] have not worked to either significantly dent transmission in the former or prevent infection in the latter. The particular focus on the spike protein as the key for COVID vaccination has now allowed for immune escape amongst evolving Omicron variants. At a wider level the large focus on antibiotic and vaccine driven methods of reducing disease prevalence are beginning to backfire as resistant strains emerge[14].

The medical-industrial complex has been at the forefront of these initiatives, pushing medicines and treatments despite iatrogenic side effects[15] and lack of long term viability. “Modern medicine has a few foundational differences from nearly any other medical system that preceded it. One of the most important differences is that the modern medical approach seeks to dominate both human physiology and disease so that the intended medical outcome can be achieved instead of working in harmony with the natural physiology and healing capacities of the body to arrive at the desired outcome”[16]. Medicine is integrated into the wider technostructure.

What these complexes variously represent are fragile, vital systems. Following from Foucault’s analysis of governance as the aggregation of data “in efforts to organize conscription for war, reduce the toll of epidemics, or manage economic fluctuations” it was noted that modern life and the growth in population were reliant on “electricity grids, transportation networks, and water systems”[17] i.e. vulnerable infrastructure requiring security to prevent disruption but also requiring rising levels of complexity to predict such potential disruption/destruction.

Vital systems security as described by Collier and Lakoff has demonstrably failed though. Their examples of public health preparedness and critical infrastructure shows the very nature of progressive thought as the piling of complexity to achieve the same objective. Public health was shown to be utterly disastrous and faddish in the face of the coronavirus. Flu pandemic preparations were ignored due to ridiculous modelling based on faulty parameters combined with WHO guidance that followed in the wake of the Wuhan lockdown. Actual evidence of efficacy was scant. Instead health organisations/complexes looked in inspired awe at the Chinese and New Zealand examples[18] (which were abandoned as they did not work).

In terms of critical infrastructure, the problems belie themselves. The very nature of complex energy and resource infrastructures is that they produce abnormal feedback which must either be integrated into its flows or externalised. Thus emerges the contradictory demands of CO2 reduction and a stable energy grid[19]. Governments cannot commit to net zero targets while maintaining either energy independence or even being able to keep the lights on as renewables (which aren’t actually renewable when taking into consideration the material inputs) don’t have the capacity to deal with grid surges or peak demand (which net zero targets are set to increase with electric cars and boilers being pushed for by the 2030s). And nuclear power is no saviour at this time due to the costs and length of time to bring them online.

The ultimate hubris of progress reveals its irony. Nothing can ever look backward. The innate human capacity is that of growth in whatever guise it might take. Its main assumption is that everything is here for us, to be organised into a machine or a technostructure so that it can serve humankind equally and efficiently. But the real question is why should it? Why should we maintain destructive policies to uphold a world population that lives beyond its means? Why should we expect complex systems to not produce confounding feedback or to fail? That is the irony of progress – that it is only there when you look for it. You must look for the illusion while ignoring its porousness. And within that illusion vast forms of historical and fragmented knowledge are lost, in old farming practices, alternative forms of medicine, manufacturing processes[20], etc. Destroyed as transformation and change are the only criteria for judging progress. At heart it requires a destructive hubris that pushes forward no matter the cost while at the same time proclaiming that an alternative path would be too costly to pursue.



[3] Samuel T. Francis, Leviathan & Its Enemies

[4] Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

[5] Henry Mintzberg, The Structuring of Organizations: A Synthesis of the Research

[6] Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, 1660-1886

[7] T.M. Devine, The Scottish Clearances














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