…Or, towards a critique of Neo-Whiggery…
Preface: Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is on my Wish list. It is only the crest of a wave however, as the ideas associated with it have been growing in influence for some time (not least in the form of Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature). It is my frustrations with this wider outlook that prompted the following polemical post. I look forward to reading Pinker’s latest book in due course.
Things are getting better.
You will probably have heard by now that life is getting better. Every day, in every way, every year. If that doesn’t sound convincing, take a look at this graph that proves it:
We are getting more good things over time: good things are on the y-axis, time is the x-axis. Cancer survival rates? Going up. Literacy? Going up. Even forests, which we have repeatedly been told have been shredded at rates that will leave us gasping for oxygen — are actually growing due to reforestation. Forests are going up. This is due to agricultural productivity (the amount of yield per hectare), which also is Going Up. More people are accessing the modern world through the Internet: Internet penetration is going up. More people have more mobile phones, with all the wondrous connectivity that comes with it. People are living longer. Longevity nay life itself is going up, with a medical debate beginning about where the absolute outer limit to the human lifespan might lie. Nor are we running out of raw materials: there is no single natural resource that we cannot expand or multiply through productivity, or substitute for through technological advancement. Natural resources in short, are Going Up.
If that doesn’t convince you, then what about the fact that Bad Things are going down. Infant mortality? Going down. Rates of dementia? Going down. War, you say? Going down. OK, perhaps for inter-state war, you may concede. Which is the last full-blown war between major powers that you can recall? But what about civil wars, such as Mali, Syria or Yemen? But civil wars too, are going down. Absolute global poverty? Going down. Ozone depletion? Going down — the ozone layer is expected to recover later this century. The gender pay gap? It’s going down. Violent crime? Historic Lows. Violence against women? Going down. Rates of teenage pregnancy? Going down. Deaths from terrorism? Going down, as surprising as it might seem. Mass shootings in the US? Going down. Bigotry? Going down — with more people more tolerant of sexual, ethnic, racial and religious diversity (tolerance is Going Up). Rates of HIV transmission, that secular late-modern plague? Going down, with more people living longer with HIV than ever before. Population growth? If you think humans are a bad thing, rest assured, they too are going down, with the global population expected to stabilise mid-century. Figure 2 below demonstrates this trend.
This is the argument that is increasingly ringing in our ears. Against the horror stories of war, famine, plague, serial killers, rapes, sexual assaults, there is a new scientifically-verified, peer-reviewed, fact-checked gospel: things are actually, genuinely really getting better (no, honestly).
This is the gospel of the new whiggery, shared in different forms across a variety of commentators and thinkers, but encompassing the likes of rational optimist Matt Ridley, Steve Pinker, Tyler Cowen and those associated with Marginal Revolution University, Jordan Peterson, Deirdre McCloskey, Brexiteer Daniel Hannan, the late, great Hans Rosling, among others. Though instead of oil paintings and long draping wigs, it’s TED talks, graphs and social media. Contrary to the gloom and misery and malaise of contemporary culture, their collective, data-driven optimism lets the sunlight in. We have plenty of reasons to celebrate social improvement and technological progress and human ingenuity. Humanprogress.org produce a steady Twitter stream of memes clocking up the positive gains in human life over the last few decades, from enhanced global trade to the decline in state-sponsored mass murder.
Not everything is heading in the right direction, of course. Diabetes is going up. The opioid catastrophe in the US has drawn plenty of attention recently, not least due to its association with the shocking reversal in life expectancy for middle aged white American men. Global warming is the Big Bad Thing that is Going Up rather than Going Down. As Humanprogress.org like to remind us, Venezuela has endured terrible reversals in recent times, wracked by hunger, inflation and turmoil. Certain types of inequality are increasing around the world. There are concerns over whether productivity is declining in advanced economies. But as the graphs above show, although there may be dips, the overall trend is nonetheless unmistakable: Good Things are Going Up and Bad Things are Going Down. There is no reason to think that we do not have the capacities — imaginative, social, technological, economic, etc. — to resolve these other festering problems in due course.
Although they come from many backgrounds and academic disciplines (evolutionary psychology, economic history, data science, etc.) most of the thinkers associated with the new optimism are most inspired by classical liberalism. In practice, this means that they tend towards free markets and libertarianism. Their ideas are rooted in the basic matrix of Enlightenment and liberal ideas: melioration through constitutional rule, technological improvement, scientific progress and investigation, economic growth and rationality — ideas that can be usefully seen as whiggish.
Yet it is not and cannot be simply the Old Whiggery plus social media. After all, the new whiggery comes after the twentieth century. In our era, it can only be a postmodern whiggery, however much its adherents may resist the conclusion. You cannot, after all, step outside your own time. To cynical early twenty first century ears, the new Whigs echo not the seventeenth and eighteenth century so as much as the twentieth century. The relentless, insistent optimism and confidence that everything will be improved in the fullness of time, that the wellsprings of social progress are already in place and more or less functioning appropriately, that only the application of science and technology are needed to dissolve all problems also has the unmistakable ring of … Stalinism.
New Whigs, Old Stalinists
Today the charts with thick arrows provocatively striking upwards into the future might be memes rather than slathered on posters all over your local central planning office, and the statistics might concern global trade and Internet access rather than increased tractor and pig iron output. Yet the same bold, upward thrust into the future is there in both cases, the same shrill insistence on metrics, the same unshakeable confidence that we’re essentially headed in the right direction. Anyway in many cases, the legitimating facts would be the same: increased literacy and schooling, better access to healthcare, declining infant mortality, etc. All were important in helping to legitimise Soviet rule in the past and indeed are still used today to offer the faux-objectivity of even-handedly recognising Soviet ‘gains’.
The similarities do not stop there.
Giving the overwhelming barrage of statistics that prove improvement in the here and now, the new Whigs quickly find themselves logically compelled to try and explain why people remain unmoved by the facts, so attached to pessimism, so hostile to expertise. What explains this cognitive bias? The debate thus ends with a hunt for psychological defects, an attempt to explain the fact that people are predisposed towards negativity, not least as a result of a skewed media pandering to popular misconceptions— arguments of the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ variety. The argument thus frequently ends up in one version or other of the form that ‘the media is bad and people are dumb’. The solution? More propaganda — TED talks rather than Komsomol chants though.
New whiggery and old stalinism share other traits. In both cases, irrationalism and pessimism are identified as being the property of preternaturally influential groups of sinister and willfully perverse recalcitrants who are immune to reason and whose actions are nothing short of subversive. Rather than Trotskyite social-fascist saboteurs and wreckers, for the new Whigs these malign groups are a clerisy of postmodern academics, deep greens, social justice warriors, feminists and the infamous cultural Marxists. Although the ideologies at stake might be different, the place these groups collectively occupy in the imaginary of the new Whigs is uncannily similar to the space occupied by ‘Trotskyites’ in the paranoid outlook of Stalinism. In short, they are ideological enemies onto whom so many of our social ills can be usefully projected, and who stand in the way of Progress. History will resume its upward momentum once these people’s pernicious ideas have been rooted out.
The differences, to be sure, are many. The New Whigs do not of course wield political or state power, let alone commanding or influencing major tyrannies. Moreover unlike Stalinists both old and new, the New Whigs also tend to be on the right side of debates over free speech — not least because they are so frequently shouted down on university campuses. That said and as we shall see below, the new whiggery does has a blind spot about state power — an attitude that stretches right back to Friedrich Hayek’s support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
I hazard that the similarity in the ideological patterns and tropes discussed above is not accidental. As liberalism came to rule over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then descended into crisis over the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, it was the Social Democracy of the Second International and then later Soviet Marxism that became the receptacles for many classically whiggish themes, the Bolshevik Revolution substituting for the Glorious Revolution as the great historic breakthrough. In the USSR, the mechanical stageism of nineteenth century Social Democracy — that history moves through stages of feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. — was adopted and pumped up on Stalinist steroids. In place of the slow, gentle process of social democratic reforms there was the strong upward thrust and dramatic output statistics. Perhaps it was this Stalinist seizure of the torch of progress that helped convince so many liberals to abandon the old whiggish outlook and retreat into historic pessimism and unabashedly conservative politics over the course of the twentieth century. In any case, the collapse of the Soviet Union has in turn opened up a gap in the market for cheery social optimism.
Perhaps the latter day Whigs will yet find themselves trapped in the diptych of tragedy and farce. The resonances between the propagandistic tropes of postmodern whiggery and Soviet Marxism should certainly push us to wonder whether beneath all the data, charts and hockey sticks there is a tacit historicism at play in the new whiggery. All that ostensibly hard data may be slowly sinking on the foundations of a mushy teleology. Certainly the bleached optimism of the new whiggery speaks to a poor and one-sided understanding of social change and development. History moves not through arrows but through contradictions, spirals and pathological repetition around social deadlocks … but that’s for another post.
Grounds for scepticism
Facts have hard heads, as Lenin used to say. Why should we be sceptical, given the overwhelming evidence for progress? Of course we may wish to query, quibble or reinterpret some of the data in different places but it would be obviously bone-headed to reject the data of progress in toto. That said, there are some who do simply refuse or ignore. I have seen this in my own discipline in the reluctance to accept the declinist thesis on political violence, particularly from critical IR academics, often suspicious of evidence to begin with and benefiting from plenty of abstruse theories to which to retreat and obfuscate. Nonetheless, even if we accept the data, there are good grounds for scepticism towards the new whiggery as an ideological outlook.
First as Keynes said, in the long run everyone is dead. The fact that I’m highly unlikely to die from bubonic plague because I have access to modern medicine and that I’ve benefitted from modern sanitation unlike many squillions of feudal peasants, has zero bearing on my day to day life. The same applies to all the mega-trends of trans-historic progress you could point to: most people are concerned with the issues of their own life-times and those generations closest to them — their children and parents. The fact that rates of homicides are down compared to fifteenth century England (one of Pinker’s arguments) does not make me any happier about my life.
Second, as Mark Blyth said, no one lives in the average. The global social improvement that we have seen over the last thirty years (at least prior to the crash of 2008) encompasses both the rustbelt regions of the US and the glittering new city-scapes of coastal China. Both are dissolved away into the bland ether of the statistical global average. Doubtless people in both places would have plenty of grounds for dissatisfaction, even if people in the former now have smartphones and those in the latter have escaped the misery of poor peasant life. You would have to be a fool to think for instance, that barrages of statistics about improved maternal health in Africa would be meaningful to people in say, the deindustrialised Welsh valleys that voted for Brexit. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is always already here, it’s just never been evenly distributed.
More than this though, when turned into propaganda, the facts deployed by the new Whigs inevitably take on a coercive character and assume the implicit form of a demand for compliance, if not obedience and gratitude. In ideological and political terms, blaring at us about how many millions of people have been lifted out of global poverty, or survive with HIV, or live past the age of 5 years old, is not dissimilar to your grandma telling you to eat your vegetables because of the starving children in Africa: be grateful, you could have it much worse. Except of course it is not your gran telling you it, but a smug liberal, or even worse, a libertarian desperate to bore you into submission with a conservation about flat taxes.
Our postmodern Whigs do not start from the problems that people do have, and have no interest in giving people greater control through political and social transformation. Indeed, why would people need more control, given that everything is basically trending to the good already? It is a depoliticised optimism, the flipside of the pessimistic epistocracy that ruled us, at least until the last few years.
New Whigs and Capitalist Roaders
A final set of thoughts. I mentioned the blind spot above about state power. Anyone who has engaged with a libertarian knows that they eventually have recourse to Singapore and Hong Kong. These authoritarian, single-party city-states have an irresistible allure for libertarians precisely for being anti-democratic.
But it does not stop there. Much of the global improvement of recent years has been directly or indirectly driven by Chinese industrialisation and growth. It is the massive Chinese economic engine that has powered those changes in global poverty, helped to accelerate global trade and global economic growth, expanded our range of consumer goods and lines of credit, improved life-chances for many millions of people. Thus any endorsement of these global changes needs to reckon with the politics. Much of the social improvement is thanks to the rule and policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Any account of recent global progress that does not begin and end with this fact is ultimately one-sided if not fundamentally dishonest. Any account of global development and improvement must also reckon with the fact that it began with an autarkic anti-capitalist peasant revolt, and that this paradoxically turned out to be the only viable basis for unifying China in the last century.
Indeed, in the grand scheme of things perhaps our libertarian new Whigs could ultimately be seen as the Western wing of Deng Xiaoping Theory. There is a precedent for such ideological interdependence. After all, it was Western ultra-Maoists of the 1960s that eventually turned into neo-conservatives and the nouveux philosophes. Today our libertarians are turning into capitalist roaders — in effect, conservative Maoists. Their loyalty to the Party may be tacit, but it is there all the same. As the great architect of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics said, what does it matter if the cat is black or white, as long as the cat catches mice? This seems to be the default attitude of the new Whigs towards Chinese Communism; who cares about democracy and freedom in China, have you seen the statistics on global poverty??
The case of China raises questions about the other forms of historical change and progress. China today is built on the dead of Tienanmen Square, with the crushing of the 1989 democratic uprisings and worker revolts around Beijing, with Party leaders warning of the need to preempt a new Cultural Revolution.
Yet there is little doubt that eventually China will democratise, and that if it succeeds, this will be one of the greatest strides forward for humanity, ever. We can also be sure that when it does happen, it will be a difficult, troublesome and in all probability violent process. A democratic revolution in China may even spell civil war, with dramatic ramifications for the world and the global economy, as well as all those charts of good things going up. The people of China have been held in bondage for the sake of the rest of the world, and our debt is long overdue. When the Chinese people do rise up, the earth will shake. The data scientists will have a hard time squeezing such turmoil into the doctrine of whiggish social improvement, and the Dengist-Libertarians will yearn for the calm repose of the Chinese Communist Party and perhaps cheer the tanks sent in to restore market stability.
But progress wins out eventually.