Russell and Duenes

Unfettered economic “progress”

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I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about our economic woes.  Likely you have too.  What seems to bother us is that, at some level, such a massive downturn cuts into our notions of “progress.”  We in the west have grown accustomed to a rather constant advance of technological, medical, physical, and material wealth; and we gauge our sense of progress and well-being on the basis of how we are doing in these areas.  I’ve wondered to myself: “What are we looking for when we talk about ‘jump-starting’ the economy?  Are we simply hoping to be back in a place where we can enjoy unfettered economic and material growth?”  The goal is to “get us going again,” whatever that might mean.  Historian, Christopher Dawson, raises the question of whether a culture or civilization can be at the height her material and economic growth and still be “on the brink” of collapse, so to speak.  

Dawson writes, This liberal idealism [of the Enlightenment] is marked by a belief in an absolute Law of Progress and an unlimited faith in the power of reason to transform society.  Concepts such as Liberty, Science, Reason, and Justice are conceived, not as abstract ideas, but as real forces which determine the movement of culture; and social progress itself, instead of being regarded as a phenomenon that requires explanation, is treated as itself the efficient cause of social change. (Sociology as Science, 1934). The two world wars did much to obliterate this “unlimited faith” in progress, but those wars seem long behind us, especially here in America. 

Dawson goes on and says, During the last fifty years Imperialism, whether military or economic, has tended to predominate over the spiritual element in the European world-society.  The economic organization of the world has far outstripped its spiritual unity, and the natural development of regional life has been repressed or forced away by a less vital, but mechanically stronger world-power…These forces are in fact part of a movement of degeneration as well as of growth, yet they have been hailed all over the world as bringers of civilization and progress.  True progress, however, does not consist in a quantitative advance in wealth and numbers, nor even in a qualitative advance in technology and the control of matter, though all these play their subsidiary parts in the movement (Emphasis mine; Sociology and the Theory of Progress, 1921).

Finally Dawson brings the issue to the fore, Hellenic civilization collapsed not by a failure of nerve but by the failure of life.  When Hellenic Science was in full flower, the life of the Hellenic world withered from below, and underneath the surface brilliance of philosophy and literature the sources of the life of the people were drying up…Yet throughout the period of this vital decline, the intellectual achievements of Hellenic civilization remained, and Greek culture, in an abstract and standardized form, was spreading East and West far more than it had done in the days of its living strength. If intellectual progress – or at least a high degree of scientific achievement – can co-exist with vital decline, if a civilization can fall to pieces from within – then the optimistic assumptions of the last two centuries concerning the future of our modern civilization lose their validity.  The fate of the Hellenic world is a warning to us that the higher and the more intellectually advanced civilizations of the West may be inferior in point of survival value to the more rudimentary Oriental cultures (Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization, 1924).

Dawson, I believe, is laying the groundwork that might cause us to question the assumptions of unfettered material and economic progress as that which drives civilization, and to see if there might be a true unifying force or power which drives human history.  Where he’s leading, I would argue, is to a manger in Bethlehem.



Written by Michael Duenes

November 20, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Posted in Duenes, Economics, History

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