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Counting the Cost of Progress

By Mary Harrington, author of the book ‘Feminism Against Progress’ and speaker at the conference "Is Progress Belief or Fact?", organised by Protopia Lab.



I was raised to believe in progress – the more-or-less religious framework that governs much of modern culture in the West. This framework says there’s a right side of history, and things can go on getting better forever.


It’s not self-evident, though, that humans have steadily progressed. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect once and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But pick a subject, and you’ll find some things are better, while other things have become worse. If you’re going to believe in progress, you have to define what you mean by progress. More stuff? More freedom? Less disease? Whatever your measure, you’ll find that what looks from one vantage point like progress mostly seems that way because you’re ignoring the costs. We’ve grown immeasurably richer and more comfortable in the last three hundred years, for example. But we did so on the backs of plundered, colonized, and enslaved peoples, and at the cost of incalculable environmental degradation. Meanwhile, torture in warfare hasn’t gone away. Warfare hasn’t gone away. Nor has hunger, misery, or human degradation.


Regardless, there are still many people who fervently believe in progress. Martin Luther King Jr. famously claimed: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Barack Obama loved the quote so much he had it woven into a White House rug.


In 2018 Steven Pinker wrote a 576-page book, Enlightenment Now, that piles up statistics – increased literacy and life expectancy worldwide, and less famine and war – to support his version of progress, which is to say in the terms set out by Enlightenment rationalism. (He dismisses increased economic inequality as irrelevant to progress.)


For our purposes here, the key is to notice the underlying structure of belief: that there exists an axis along which progress can be measured, and that we’re inexorably moving along that axis, from bad to less bad. Confusingly, this is often accompanied by the sense that even though this movement is supposedly inevitable, it also demands constant vigilance against the forces of reaction. Already back in 1991, social critic Christopher Lasch was asking how progressivism continued to assert such a grip when economic progress was certain to hit social and environmental limits in the end. More recently, legal scholar Adrian Vermeule has dissected what he calls “sacramental liberalism,” which he considers “an imperfectly secularized offshoot of Christianity.” This quasi-theological political persuasion, he argues, takes as its central sacrament the disruption of existing norms in pursuit of greater freedom, transformation, and progress toward absolute human perfection and freedom.


So what might it look like to pursue women’s political interests in practice, if we stop putting our faith in progress and ask instead what those interests might be in terms of where we stand now? We’ve inherited a set of memes from the twentieth century that connect feminism firmly with freedom. And we’re taking those memes into a set of material conditions in which technology is rapidly expanding the scope of what we have the freedom to attempt. The product of that is a fusion of once-emancipatory ideas with new technologies and commercial interests. Resisting this means pursuing not untrammelled freedom, but a broader project of staying human together. To this end, we’ll need to reckon with some of feminism’s unpaid debts, and to take a more realist stance on where the limits to individual freedom really are. We in the West are, perhaps, liberated enough. It’s not just women who need a freedom haircut; it’s everyone. And it’s my hope that we may be able to mitigate some of the negative side effects that may otherwise accrue from our effort to scrape the barrel of freedom. We can do this by taking the initiative on where and how we set about constraining ourselves, in ways that are in the common interest of both sexes.

Women can further shape how we live together in the rubble of absolute freedom by challenging the centrality of abortion and birth control to our sexual culture. There are well-documented asymmetries in how men and women view sexual desire and sexual access, along with the obvious asymmetries in the male and female reproductive roles. Medical technologies which eliminate those asymmetries physically haven’t also done so emotionally, and many women suffer at present less due to constraints on their ability to say yes to sex, as for lack of a reason to say no.


But it doesn’t have to be like that. Our assent to this regime is voluntary. The most powerful weapon at women’s disposal for defending ourselves against the undercounted cost of supposedly empowering hook-up culture is making sex properly consequential again. And I suspect many men would prefer a robust “no” from a self-possessed young woman to being resentfully hectored about toxic masculinity. By reclaiming human sexuality as something that men and women govern together as one of the most profound and beautiful mysteries of our common humanity, we can begin to win sexuality back from its current jaded, affectless role as low-consequence leisure activity or mere marketing tool.

We need to re-imagine marriage as the enabling condition for radical solidarity between the sexes, and as the smallest possible unit of resistance to overwhelming economic, cultural, and political pressure to be lone atoms in a market. Households formed on this model can work together both economically and socially on the common business of living, whether that’s agricultural, artisanal, knowledge-based, or a mix of all these. This is an essential precondition for the sustainable survival of human societies. Our biggest obstacle is an obsolete mindset that deprecates all duties beyond personal fulfilment, and views intimate relationships in instrumental terms, as means for self-development or ego gratification, rather than enabling conditions for solidarity. This radical reordering of women’s politics, women’s priorities, and even our bodies to the interests of the market, in the name of liberty, has racked up a growing mountain of uncounted costs. As the mother of a young daughter, I look at that growing mountain of negative consequences, and the growing chorus of resentment from groups outside feminist filter bubbles, and I worry about her future should we face the ideological equivalent of a subprime crisis.


My aim isn’t to stuff feminism back into its box, as if such a thing were even possible. I’ve no wish to be banned from voting or working, any more than I want my political agency to be subsumed into that of my husband. In any case, those policies make no sense today. But sex continues to be politically salient. We’re shaped in part by memes: our culture and habits concerning how to live. And we’re also shaped by material conditions: our economic circumstances, the wider political world, and our sexual nature. But contra the prophets of progress, neither memes nor material conditions necessarily evolve only in the right direction.


Certain basic facts about us will remain true. Most of us want children; most want a life lived in common with a member of the opposite sex. The shape of our bodies still matters, despite everything the modern world has done to minimize those disparities. And we’re not powerless. We don’t have to stumble blindly into an age of technological upheaval with a worldview shaped by a set of industrial-era memes that are now making things worse. Just as we have in the past, we can and must once again re-evaluate how men and women can be human together.

Author: Mary Harrington

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