On Human Progress
My General English teacher from three years ago was very fond of dropping the phrase “There’s nothing wrong with being a Marxist in theory” whenever politics was being discussed in class. From her tone of voice you could tell that she was declaring herself a Marxist with that statement, so I was always quick to respond that Marx’s conception of historical materialism — especially its reliance on the idea of an “end of history” — doesn’t hold up when you look at how the world actually works. Of course, my teacher wasn’t talking about the philosophy underpinning Karl Marx’s writing so much as policies of radical wealth redistribution. But she never elaborated, giving in to my half-assed retaliation, probably because she could tell from the way my eyes were gleaming with that cocky teenage certainty that I had completely made up my mind:
If your model of society rests on such shaky theoretical ground, why bother with the nitty-gritty? Why should I give you the benefit of the doubt?
But let’s not badmouth Marx too much. After all, it’s understandable that someone like him would want to be proven right by history. Then again, what does that even mean?
The rhetoric of self-aggrandizement contained in the phrase “the right side of history” has become so popular as to warrant idiom status. But what is the underlying narrative when prominent political figures like Barack Obama repeatedly advance their vision for the future under the slogan “we’re on the right side of history”? What’s implied and what, if anything, explained?
Your first impulse might be to say that someone’s claim to a supposed “right side of history” is a sign of optimism: it expresses a belief in a higher order of things that, when push comes to shove, will make sure all major crises result in a better world order. This interpretation is accurate enough from the position of the speaker, but agreeing with it from a third-person point of view goes one step too far. Because taking such a bold statement as an indication of moral superiority is to buy into it, to assume the stance of the speaker. At the core, it’s not about following in the footsteps of prior Great People of History, it’s using this grandiose notion of an exclusive club of individual (mostly male) do-gooders to widen the appeal of your own plans for the future, however delusional or hypocritical they prove upon closer inspection. It’s an invitation to the idea that you’re morally superior, coupled with a gentle “Fuck you” to anyone refusing the invitation. Which might be self-evident if you exclude Obama from the exemplary list of “right-siders” for a moment and imagine a less charismatic politician saying it, someone more “tainted” by History’s Gaze. You’ll notice that the phrase “we’re on the right side of history” takes on a completely different taste when served on a more generic platter — and by a waiter whose charisma, unlike Obama’s, is low enough for you not to forgive him all of his mishaps (i.e., blatant and repeated human-rights violations) in exchange for a charming smile thrown your way.
And that’s putting aside the more troubling aspect of the speaker’s naivety in “reading” history so simplistically. If you want to get into that, let’s look at what everybody’s favourite author of misunderstood dystopias, George Orwell, has to say about the flimsy concept of “historic necessity” and its application in socialist circles.
It seems only yesterday that Socialists, especially orthodox Marxists, were telling me with superior smiles that Socialism was going to arrive of its own accord by some mysterious process called ‘historic necessity’. Possibly that belief still lingers, but it has been shaken, to say the least of it. Hence the sudden attempts of Communists in various countries to ally themselves with democratic forces which they have been sabotaging for years past.
At a later point in his read-it-for-the-second-half classic The Road to Wigan Pier, he again addresses
the old argument that Socialism is going to arrive anyway, whether people like it or not, because of that trouble-saving thing, ‘historic necessity’. But ‘historic necessity’, or rather the belief in it, has failed to survive Hitler.
So as it seems, right-siders aren’t only found on the neoliberal end of the political spectrum but among socialists as well — how predictably Marxist of them. Here, the sentiment comes clothed in a different phrase and is spouted from a different vantage point, but the gist is the same:
We’re the advocates of what is bound to happen, regardless of the adversity we’re facing now. History will bend in our favour and justice will win out in the end — just you wait.
What I find interesting about the anti-capitalist idea of “historic necessity” — which I myself have even come to adhere to, to an extent — is that it justifies complacency rather than a particular course of action. In that sense, it’s diametrically opposed to Obama’s repeated pleas for justice, which position their speaker as an agent, part of an unstoppable force for good, rather than a mere witness to a predetermined future.
The anti-capitalist incarnation of this idea still enjoys a significant following today, though again under a different heading. Contrary to how Orwell’s notoriously prophetic eye perceived things, it has managed to survive even Hitler.
Although this video ignores the price which peoples of the Global South pay for #latecapitalist prosperity and instead focuses on US domestic politics, it does give some valuable insight into what might have facilitated the revival of leftist historical determinism (assuming that it had died off in the wake of World War II). The meme that has sprung from it takes a piercingly cynical view of the capitalist mindset and its accompanying exploitative structures; it foregrounds capitalism wherever it’s hidden in plain sight. And this finds an appropriate spin-off in the catch phrase:
There is no such thing as ethical consumption under late capitalism.
Wherever this proclamation is made as a lazy excuse to buy from companies known for their bad ethical record, you can see a parallel to Orwell’s lamentation about “historic necessity” and its role as a pacifier for potential activists. But in its original intent, it should rather be read as an attack on people who “fall for” ethical branding — and perhaps by extension, centrist politicians who are hard at work trying to cure capitalism of its ills rather than treating them as parts of its genetic code, as the radical left does.
Regardless of the precise context in which a slogan about “late-stage capitalism” is used, the agreement common to all proponents appears to be this:
I have to admit I wholeheartedly agree. And doesn’t the same go for the course of human history as a whole? Clearly, its conflicts defy categorization into two opposing camps. Clearly, the road along which history has travelled is not just winding, but twisted. Clearly, capitalism has proven both more inhumane and more resilient than its early opponents could ever have imagined.
I keep committing the same fatal error that haunts so many liberals and leftists: I personify history. I may not have invoked what David A. Graham of The Atlantic called “a trajectory toward perfection”, but I couldn’t help simplifying the matter under the influence of that lovely collocation, “morbidly absurd”.
I can understand if you don’t sympathize with my personal opinion. You might even prefer the “pick a side” rhetoric to my (perhaps equally reductive) reading of human history; but I reckon even you, my dear contrarian, will find it somewhat tempting to conclude that there’s no such thing as “historic necessity” under late capitalism. A better world — however we choose to define that — might be possible, but it sure as hell isn’t inevitable.