On What Progress Might Look Like

I take my tiny dog out in the early African mornings, they are my favorite times on the continent. The little early-birds are chirping around, seated on the razor wire atop the walls which protect us from ‘the anarchy that came’, searching for food before the stifling heat of the day drives them back to their nests. I watch the rising sun while my little dog sniffs around the banana plant and the mango tree, the catalyzing aroma of coffee mixes with the smell of burned wood wafting over the horizon in pungent little plumes, and my thoughts drift to a peaceful place.

Then the wood-smoke gets a little stronger, and I am wrenched back to time and place because that lovely scent – that of Africa, but also of the sub-continent and the steamy jungles of Asia-pacific and the charming little villages of Central America – is the smell of a world killing itself. “Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.” Like an ailing body hiding an insidious cancer, they often times seem fine while the disease grows and morphs and metastasizes, only showing the degrading presence of the disease in a precipitous decline at the end.

What are the signs that foretell an arriving ordeal? They are there, we see them – and yet even as we do our ‘failed liberalism’ has not given us the tools to look beyond our politics to diagnose them. They are climate change; but not in a ‘Paris Accord’, redistribute American wealth to third world despots while giving China and India a pass way. Not about America at all really, except in the ‘free our technologies from the bureaucrats so we can finally fix this’ way (more on that later); but more about the second reality which causes climate change but which people don’t want to talk about because they don’t want to point fingers at real culprits. Environmental degradation. Filling the rivers and seas with plastic; cutting down the last sad trees of the Sahara and now the Sahel; using rapidly-depleted global fertilizer stocks to coax bean plantlets out of scarred and charred earth; the destruction of our jungles and the murder of the animals in the sixth great extinction (we will probably be the seventh). All this, incidentally, is aggravated by poverty. Poverty is the greatest polluter – a situation which cash transfers do not solve and the ‘aid industry’ only worsens. But the worst sign, of which America is not only guilty but may in fact be the major culprit, is the entrenching presence of oligarchy, of a new aristocracy cemented by inequality brought on by crony capitalism where the government rewards its own, those in power self-deal and nameless bureaucrats pick winners and losers while regulating away innovation: “This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.”   

But what about technology? Isn’t that always the answer – “Thomas Malthus two-hundred years ago failed to foresee a green revolution,” cue scoffing sounds, “so please ignore the doom-sayers. Technology will again save us.” Not so, says Hans Peter Dietz, “It is painfully obvious that technological progress between, say, 1968 and now, can’t compare to the periods between 1818 and 1868; 1868 and 1918; or 1918 to 1968. This will very likely be recognized by the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 2019, when lots of people will start to wonder why it is that, 50 years after the greatest triumph of the Apollo programme, we don’t even have the capacity to repeat the technological feats of the late ’60s.”

So what does collapse look like, then? “Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.” If this is the case, we are already seeing the first signs of it; in Venezuela and Cuba and across Africa – socialist countries all because that failed ideology is the first to evidence the collapse. Democracies are supposed to listen to each other, the earth and the animals and see the market signals through price and profit which show the direction things are going. More on that in a second.

So will a ‘Green New Deal’ save us? Of course not. As stated above, socialist systems these days represent the tail end of civilization when they have ‘lost their common culture’ and in doing so their ability to discuss, debate and dialogue controlled as they are by oligarchies which are the end result of a system empowering government over citizen and bureaucrat over entrepreneur. This sets in pace new aristocracies which lack the incentives to present the root causes of the mess; even if they could still identify them – which they usually can’t. They lack the tools anymore. Socialism is like a slow-moving communism without the firing squads – at least at first – the goal of which is the murder of the soul. Fewer people object.

So, what is the answer? First of all, I hate the “now here’s how to fix it” sections of these things. I prefer to describe what I see around – but lately I’ve been criticized for not offering solutions. So here goes. I am a true progressive. After rescuing the word “Liberal” from the dustbin of history – with the help of my classical liberal friends – we are now coming after the word ‘progress’. Progress, as known by any common sense man or woman, results from the unleashing of the ‘captive minds’ of men for the purpose of innovation and ingenuity. Creativity; renaissance; rebirth; revolution (yes I’m coming after that word too – but not today). When our Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, setting in place our ‘Liberal Order’ – unleashing the power of the western mind, it was only the beginning. Over the past centuries we worked on rule of law; equality before those laws; consent of the governed; abolishing slavery and colonialism; fighting the illiberal challenges as they emerged (the biggest of which were fascism and socialism, two sides of the same collectivist coin) and cementing basic rights like speech and property. The greatest product of all this was the United States, as the ‘last best hope’ of man; and this remains true today.

Nevertheless, nothing is a “finished product” – not even America. The next ‘progressive’ step in our social evolution, one which was started in Westphalia centuries ago, is long overdue. A 28th Amendment which would once and for all separate state from the economy. “Congress shall make no law…” governing the free exchange of property. In doing this we free ourselves from the last arcane vestiges of mercantilism and feudalism. Sure, that might seem stressful, “After man’s tail fell off, it was probably some little while before he learned to shoo away flies without a tail. I don’t doubt that during that first time he probably missed his tail. But now – can you even imagine yourself with a tail?” Yes, its time to guide government toward its natural role of arbiter (as opposed to a referee who occasionally jumps into the game on one side or the other) and defender; and in doing so we can stop the crippling malinvestment which leads to our unpayable debt and which is chaining us to new aristocracies and ruining our economies; and in doing so at last spur a new dawn of technological progress.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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