Full disclosure: I haven’t read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. This is based only on the Salon article that you can read here. But based on what I know of Pinker, I have no reason to doubt Salon’s accusations against his newest book. Should I have read it? Probably. But as I am fond of reminding you: this is my blog and I can talk about whatever I want. So there you have it…
If I were a respected intellectual, I have no doubt that Pinker would have called me out in Enlightenment Now for being a leftist “progressophobe”. I prefer to think of myself as a “progressive skeptic”. But that would be missing the point: I am not “anti-progressive”. I have asserted that technology and our common notions of “progress” only set up the parameters of modern life…they do not “make life better”.
Let me explain this again: when we reflect on history, it becomes “apparent” that humanity has progressed for the better. We’re living longer, we’ve seemingly taken control of the planet, information is readily available, and….that’s pretty much it! But the mistake that intellectuals like Pinker make is that longevity of life and access to modern conveniences equals progress. This is what I’ve called the “arrogance of modernity”.
“Progress”, as we like to think of it, is quite subjective (for a lack of better description). I don’t share the neoliberal optimism that Pinker and others have shared. I am not a materialist. Have I benefited from such innovations like the internet? Absolutely. But again, material gain does not equate to a better standard of living. While we have more shit at our disposal, we are also working slave wages, suffering from a plethora of mental health illnesses IN ADDITION to diseases like diabetes, cancers, and heart-related problems because our diet is terrible. We also have automatic machine guns, nuclear weapons, and standing militaries capable of committing genocide at a moment’s notice. Sure, cavemen were undoubtedly savage assholes living in rough times, but what would they say if they could evaluate our lives today?
Since we are living in a “post-Enlightenment” era, an era that the rarified air of Ivy League academia has benefited from, intellectuals like Pinker have become blinded by definitions of progress as spelled out BY the Enlightenment. (I cannot attest to Salon’s accusations that Pinker fundamentally misunderstood the Enlightenment readings that he cites.)
Again, I didn’t read the book, but I will entertain Salon’s accusation of Pinker’s so-called “apology of capitalism”. Presumably the argument is that even though capitalism has brought with it much harm, it was also the catalyst for the improvement in quality of life….or what Pinker defines as “progress”. I’ve already spelled out why progress is a faulty assumption…and to add to that, material gain does not automatically equal a better life. Liberal intellectuals like Pinker have fallen into the neoliberal meritocracy myth, which is why guys like Bill Gates love this work. But this meritocracy has contributed to much of problems of modern life, problems that the Ivy League-attending billionaires and intellectuals like Gates and Pinker don’t suffer from. Instead of being a champion of “progress”, Pinker is unwittingly defending the status quo essentially, as addressed by Salon.
But back to the defense of myself and my criticisms of common notions of progress…in the West, we’ve defined human achievement as improvement in material well-being. But, I suppose that wealth and longevity in overall public wellbeing aren’t good indicators of “existential” wellbeing, if you will. Our evaluations of people based on their productivity has made us “poor in spirit” (for, again, a lack of a better description). Capitalism has been effective in so far in its ability to manipulate our existential concerns to spur development and economic growth. That’s progress ONLY in a material sense, but not in a very human sense. If we want HUMAN progress, I don’t advocate a DO MORE, WANT MORE ethic that that neoliberal meritocracy warrants, but a WANT LESS attitude that focuses on personal (or spiritual) wellbeing.
Now THAT’S progress I advocate.