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Progress isn’t yours

Submitted by on June 28, 2013 – 9:07 amNo Comment


Our city was built on an ideology of progress. The first city of modernity, Manchester attracted writers and thinkers from all over to witness this new industrial wonder of the modern world.

Science, rationalism, the careful control and manipulation of nature, and of labour, would drive humanity forward to a better world, said those Manchester Men of industry.

All underpinned by capitalism of course, providing just enough enlightened freedom from church and state to develop new technologies, with enough legal control and bureaucracy to protect the profits for inventors and investors.

“a few capitalists, thousands of poor workmen, little middle class”
- Alexis de Tocqueville

People flooded into Manchester to become an ‘employee’, working for a wage and divorced from the products they made. Their reward a fraction of what they produced; working men, women and children seen as little more than expendable pieces of machinery to be worn down until they broke, with industrialists safe in the knowledge of an infinite supply of spare parts – surplus population – waiting to replace them.

The poverty and wretchedness of workers existed cheek-by-jowl with the great wealth their labour created, but carefully screened away in parts of the city through which factory owners and dignitaries had no need to pass. Progress and abundance built on misery and poverty…

It was a fundamentally rotten system, a few at the top creaming off the rewards while the majority broke their backs providing it, all in the name of progress. The wretchedness and filth was there for all to see, but what was to be done?

Those at the top mostly weren’t interested; it was turning out to be a good form of progress for them after all. Some didn’t like witnessing the conditions of the working class, and argued for charity, philanthropy or reform to lessen the plight of the new urban poor:

“The disruption of the natural ties has created a wide gulf between the higher and the lower orders of the community, across which the scowl of hatred banishes the smile of charity and love” - James Philip Kay, 1832

But the son of a German industrialist, living in Manchester and seeing first-hand what his family wealth was built upon, was equally appalled by the squalor and inequality in Manchester and other industrial, modern cities. Frederick Engels didn’t just want social reform though, he didn’t just want to take the sharp edges off the misery, he wanted to overturn the whole system.

Maybe more than anyone, his observations of working people in cities like Manchester spelled out in stark terms what underpinned the kind of progress of which the capitalists were so proud. For Engels, the condition of the working class was no accident, no oversight, but a fundamental, functioning part of the prgress of the capitalist industrial world:

“everywhere barbarous indifference, hard selfishness on one side, unspeakable misery on the other, everywhere social war, every man’s house a fortress, everywhere marauders who plunder under the protection of the law” - Engels, 1845

For capitalists, the way out of misery was simple. You work hard and become one of the plundering marauders, and for that all you need is to develop some of that barbarous indifference. Engels, though, and one of his mates back home in particular, knew that people aren’t only driven by selfishness and individual greed – yes, that exists, but most would much rather find a fairer, more humane way of getting on.

Luddites, Breakers, Chartists and so on, all in their different ways knew that you don’t have to join ‘em, because you can beat ‘em. For them progress was about making the world better for everyone, not trampling on the weak to make things better for yourself.

The Luddites are a great example. Not many groups have had a worse press than the Luddites – maybe the Vandals… Anyway, the Luddites weren’t really against machines or technology, and they definitely weren’t against progress, they just didn’t share the capitalist view of progress that said when a new kind of machine is developed, the first thing you do is dispense with the labour that helped build it, and from which the surplus value was pillaged to fund it, and use it to increase the profits of a few.

Under capitalism, man makes progress only to better his own position and status compared to others, and what’s more the capitalist believes there’s no other motivation for inventing, and thinking, and building.

Since Engels left Manchester, his work has inspired people all over the world to question dominant ideas about progress, but today there’s still a common sense way of thinking that says that to progress, you have to embrace the commercial world.

It’s no surprise; so much of our everyday lives is commodified it’s hard to imagine an alternative. When even the best things get covered in corporate wrapping, we might want to get rid of the latter, but it’s not easy to do while keeping hold of the former.

“It is from the midst of this putrid sewer that the greatest river of human industry springs up and carries fertility to the whole world. From this foul drain pure gold flows forth. Here it is that humanity achieves for itself both perfection and brutalisation, that civilisation produces its wonders, and that civilised man becomes again almost a savage” - Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

Even Engels and his pen pal, and all the greatest socialist thinkers, whether Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lenin or Gramsci, acknowledged that capitalism had brought mankind some great leaps forward, some genuine progress, so the task is to know which bits to reject and which to hang on to. It’s not always our own choice of course – sometimes others aren’t as bothered about the corporate wrapping as us, and won’t let us take it off.

Even if they don’t like it, they can’t imagine a version of progress without that wrapping. So we either shrug and accept the wrapping like everyone else, or leave them to it.

There’s a 2011 book by Ronald Wright called ‘A Short History of Progress’, and a related film called ‘Surviving Progress’, which I’d recommend if you can get hold of either. He uses a great analogy to describe what he calls the ‘Progress Trap’.

When early hunters worked out a way of killing two mammoths instead of one, it was progress. When they learnt how to kill 200 by driving a whole herd over a cliff, they thought that was mega-progress, at first anyway.

The capitalist rulers we live with now would rather subject the next few generations to lives of misery, and drive us all over the cliff, than give up the hold over us they have through low wages and debts.

They convinced us to panic with them in 2008 when their version of progress ground to a halt. There hadn’t been a natural disaster or food shortage, but their way of moving money around, or more accurately their ways of moving abstract loans and debts around, had failed miserably.

So they told us that the only way the world could avoid calamity was for us all to agree to work harder for less money, and for our kids and grandkids to do the same, so that we can all carry on progressing, in debt. To them.

Manchester is still mainly run by the same kind of Manchester Men that have a peculiarly narrow, commercially driven view of progress. And Manchester, like all cities, still carries on producing men and women that can see right through it, who put forward a better vision of progress for its people.

We might have to sit in rooms and share plans with some of those Manchester Men, and they might not be all bad, but we just have to make sure we don’t let their idea of progress become ours.

- From A Fine Lung, issue 10. This issue is now sold out, but you can still buy issues two, three, five, seven and eight here.

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