In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker claims that the Enlightenment has worked, and that “health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise.” I have a problem with this.
I don’t doubt at all that life has become vastly better in the last couple of centuries, perhaps especially for oppressed groups such as workers, women and ethnic minorities. Instead, my question is: what progress has there been in the last ten years?
Of course, as Mill wrote, a stationary state of incomes need not imply stagnation in other aspects of human flourishing. But what progress have we had here recently? Yes, crime has fallen – albeit less so than in the 90s. But there can be little doubt that our political culture has declined. We’ve seen a rise in fake news (and misplaced allegations thereof), asymmetric Bayesianism, shrillness, intolerance and xenophobia.
Centrist and liberal values are under threat (though as John Gray points out, it would be misleading to call these “Enlightenment values”.)
This, of course, is no coincidence. As Ben Friedman has shown, economic stagnations create intolerance and closed-mindedness. The anti-Enlightenment trends that Pinker identifies – “tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking” – are on the rise not because people have suffered a collective bang on the head, but because centrism is no longer putting money on the table. Brexit is, in large part, the product of stagnation and austerity.
From this perspective, I’m inclined to agree with Gray that celebrating the Enlightenment is an “intellectual anodyne” for centrists. This is because it misses the point.
Which is that the fact that a long history of progress has stalled is consistent with the Marxist narrative.
Marx saw that capitalism was a force for progress. It has, he wrote, “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”, “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life” and “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations.”*
But, he added, this would eventually cease to be the case. Capitalistic property relations would, he thought, eventually become “fetters” upon material progress. And, pace Friedman, a lack of material progress means moral and intellectual regress.
If this is right, liberal centrists are doing what Tom Paine accused Edmund Burke of: they are pitying the plumage of liberal values but forgetting the dying bird of the prosperity that fostered them.
Rather than simply assert the virtue of Enlightenment values, they must instead recognise that the threats to these are a product of capitalist stagnation. They must give us good reasons to believe this stagnation is temporary or – better still – come up with convincing ideas for rescuing capitalism. The fact that many of them acceded to Tory austerity means they have, so far, been unable to do this.
Unless they engage intelligently with the fact of capitalist failure, centrists will remain irrelevant. In fact, it might be that it is we Marxists rather than they who are the better defenders of values such as liberty and rationality.
* We must remember that capitalism was a force for progress in the 20th century in large part because it embraced anti-capitalist elements – a welfare state, mixed economy and progressive taxation – and began to stagnate as these elements were whittled away by neoliberalism.