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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Road to Utopia

The hangover from World War I failed to deter believers in “progress.”

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In Maybe We Can’t Stop “Progress,” But We Should, some of the implications of faith in Utopian expectations of limitless “progress” were explored.

Crossing into the 21st century, as we did in Y2K, was not as big a deal as was the transition from the 19th to the 20th century.  Our emotional circuits at the end of the 20th century were overloaded by round-the-clock news coverage.  Technological gadgetry seemed unlimited; basic problems appeared intractable. 

The prior centennial was different.  In 1899 one of the most striking distinctions was the pervasive optimism about ?progress.?  A dazzling parade of scientific discoveries and inventions was making daily life easier.  The social sciences, established as separate fields of study only in the early part of the 19th century, promised to revolutionize political and social knowledge just as mathematics and experimental methodology had done for the physical sciences.  Democratic ideas were making the world a more humane place.  Avant garde political thinkers, confident that science had discovered the path back to the Garden of Eden, saw no further need for religious ?superstitions.?

Everyday life changed far more dramatically in the 19th century than during the 20th century.  In 1800, most people were farmers who never went more than a few miles from their homes.  Almost within a lifetime America went from the horse-and-buggy to instant communications across the oceans.  So many things that we take for granted did not exist in 1800: electricity, organic chemistry, typewriters, reaping machines, telegraphs and telephones, photography, sewing machines, elevators and high-rise buildings, phonographs and electric lights, X-rays, motion-pictures, radios, automobiles, and airplanes.  In swift succession, manufacturing of all sorts began to develop, and railroads spread across the land.  Giant interstate corporations came into existence, and Wall Street banks gained access to vast amounts of capital to finance these enterprises.  By 1899, the United States had become the industrial colossus of the world. 

Democracy, representative government, and majority rule seemed to follow the spread of science.  Only the most backward nations remained in the grip of despotic regimes.  Latin American countries won independence from Spain.  Slavery was abolished in the British Empire, then in the United States.  The Spanish Inquisition finally ended, along with the last vestiges of the feudal system of serfdom in eastern Europe.  Democratic ideals became the rallying cry throughout Europe as country after country asserted individual rights against absolute monarchial control.

Concurrently, this flood of new technology and political change destabilized people?s lives.  Population growth surged, people moved from farms to cities, from crafts to assembly lines, from growing their own food to living in crowded slums on subsistence-level wages.  The field of social work became a socialist intellectual preoccupation.

In this brave new, scientific world, traditional religious faith waned.  Nietzsche observed that ?god was dead.?  Hegel and Karl Marx confidently identified the processes of history itself, in which Marx foresaw the ultimate triumph of socialism that was to create the new heaven-on-earth. 

American Progressive historians and social scientists found the abstract socialist ideals of the 1789 French Revolution more attractive than the hard-won, concrete mechanisms of English common law and our American Constitution.  Socialism?s theoretical concept of social justice as economic and social equality in a planned economy under collectivist government became a compelling goal for intellectuals.  From the 1880s onward, American institutions came under relentless attack.  John Dewey campaigned for progressive education based on philosophical pragmatism, which asserts that there are no fixed truths or moral principles, only policies that work or do not work.  Thorstein Veblen denounced the economics of great wealth and conspicuous consumption. 

Optimism about the inevitability of social progress took a heavy hit with the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic in 1912.  Then, in 1914 with the start of World War I, ?the lights went out all over Europe,? plunging us into the bloodiest and most savage century in the history of mankind.

Liberal-socialist intellectuals, nonetheless, clung to their secular religious faith that regulation by collectivized and socialized government would triumphantly perfect human society.

Cynthia Crossen’s Broad Coalition Sought To Take Profit Out Of War Following WWI in the March 16th edition of the Wall Street Journal gives us a nice retrospective on one of the loonier expressions of that faith.  The article also demonstrates how deeply flawed is the liberal-socialist analysis of cause-and-effect in human affairs.

Early into the 20th century, historian Charles Beard asserted that the Constitution was merely a conspiracy of wealthy proprietors to keep the workers in their place.  Anthropologist Franz Boas proclaimed that no one culture was necessarily better than another; thus the Anglo-Saxon culture that produced the United States had no special claim to loyalty. 

Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann founded The New Republic magazine and called for strong, centralized political leadership to replace the Jeffersonian individualism that, in their judgment, had produced only a mediocre society.  Congressional power was to take second place to the forceful President who would take charge and push the country toward social justice, a desired fullfilled by the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but above all in the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. 

The intellectuals got their wish, but central planning under strong leaders here and abroad produced not the expected social justice, but instead the displacement of individual rights by the national aims of collectivized governments.  World War II was just down the road.