by Umair Haque

July 30, 2018

from Eudaimonia Website







The Hidden Story

of Human Progress

...and Why it Matters


Every year of my life so far, it seems, some wise and learned old man publishes a book which recites the same old gruesome and weird myth, almost word for word.


It's like groundhog day, but for...

The myth goes like this:

Capitalism! Yay! It saved the world...!

The latest such person is Steven Pinker, and it's his, third? fourth? book proclaiming so.


Needless to say, it must be something people feel the need to hear, over and over again, and so it's very much a modern myth:

a tale we tell, ritually, to comfort ourselves.

But from what, exactly?


Probably from the sinking feeling, that, right about now, the myth is probably about as true as Snow White being rescued by Prince Charming, which is to say, not very.

Have you looked at the stronghold of capitalism, the United States, recently?


It's not exactly bubbling over with prosperity, whether it's called happiness, sanity, wealth, democracy, or wisdom. If capitalism didn't save America, the most capitalist society in human history - how could it have saved anyone else?


The myth falls apart the very instant we think about it, instead of recite it.



  • What happens if we go on questioning the fairy tale that capitalism is the Prince Charming of human progress, or, if you like, the magical perpetual motion machine of neoliberalism?


  • What might we discover?

(The first thing we'd probably think is that no one in their right mind should be proclaiming "progress!!" in a summer when ruinous heatwaves due to climate change are sweeping the globe, and so are pulsating waves of fascism - both catastrophic depletions of natural and civic capital.


The true story of capitalism, in other words, is as much about catastrophic hidden costs, or "externalities", as much as "benefits" .


Those costs are obvious, though, if we care to look.

Centuries of slavery, segregation, colonialism, speculative frenzies which lead to depressions, which cause world wars.

No accounting of capitalism is complete with any of those - but for that precise reason, because it's the logic of capitalism, "accounting" isn't the way we should think of human progress at all.)

How should we think about "Capitalism! Bro!! It saved the world!!" - aka human progress?


Not by toting up dollars and cents, but thinking of what they really denominate, mean, signify, represent. Just because I'm "richer", doesn't mean much - unless I have genuinely valuable things available to me in the first place. In America, for example, a millionaire can barely afford an organ transplant - but in Europe, everyone can.


Why is that? What does it mean?


It means that capitalism alone can't be the engine of human progress - because if we really think about it, instead of recite the tired old myth, we'll quickly see that humanity's greatest breakthroughs have never come from capitalism at all.

Let's take three waves of great breakthroughs, one by one, starting with at the very beginning of the story of modern human progress - the industrial revolution. Americans tell it as some noble myth of garage-borne invention. But it was nothing of the kind. The industrial revolution dates to 1760.


Guess what else does? The scientific method...


The very first controlled experiment happened in 1753. The industrial revolution depended critically on the very first age of what we'd consider proto "modern" research into the new natural sciences happening at universities, which was then shared and publicized by royal societies.


But that research was only finally taking place because the rudiments of the scientific method were finally laid down,

statistics, controls, experimental design, inductive logic, and so forth,

...after centuries of blind alleys.


It's true that the great inventors commercialized this research, and built products atop it - but without sudden, revelatory understandings of the basic laws of physics, all those contraptions, engines, "gins", pistons, lightbulbs, plugs, and so on, wouldn't have been built at all.

Do you see the lesson yet?


Even the very first age of what we consider human progress today wasn't about capitalism. It was about public goods.

Three of them, specifically.


Universities - who'd built the first real labs. Creating a whole new way of thinking and doing, called "science". Whose knowledge was then shared, debated, and disseminated by another great public institution:

royal societies, which are still doing exactly the same thing today.

These three public goods, which in turn depended on others, like,

parks, libraries, hospitals, roads, bridges, constitutions, and democracy,

...were, for the first time in history, beginning to interweave in sophisticated, delicate, and complex ways, allowing minds to take great and improbable leaps into the unknown.

Fast forward a hundred years, to the next great wave of human progress - the biomedical wave.

How was the vaccine discovered? By a doctor at St George's hospital in London - who noticed that people who worked with cows, funnily, seemed to develop a natural resistance to cowpox. He tested his theory on the son of a cow farmer, and presented his findings to a skeptical, astonished royal society.


How were antibiotics discovered? At St Mary's hospital in Paddington, a researcher was doing experiments on a totally unrelated subject, and one day some mold spores - to his astonishment - killed the bacteria in his petri dishes.


How was the chemotherapy discovered? By doctors at Yale, who thought that mustard gas bombs might also treat cancer, since they seemed to inhibit cellular activity.

See the same lesson at work... almost precisely?


It wasn't capitalism that gave us these next three great breakthroughs, which have done more for human life than every single Google search or iPhone or Alexa put together. It was public goods again. Only this time, woven together in even more complex ways.


Think of all the public goods that needed to interweave for the discovery of antibiotics to finally happen - it was an even more delicate, complicated dance than in the last wave

The hospital. Those petri dishes. The experiment. The spores, wafting in from the park. The doctor. The library he studied in. The royal society. The science he'd learned...

Not to mention the stable, prosperous democracy he lived in, a place with roads, bridges, cities, squares to walk and think in.


Do you see how all these had to weave together, in even more sophisticated, improbable ways, for this great breakthrough to happen?

But the reverse is also true.

Capitalism never discovered the vaccine, antibiotics, or chemotherapy probably because it couldn't have.


It's not just that its horizons are too short, or that its interests are too narrow and selfish, though they are. It's that history teaches us over and over again that it takes complex, interwoven sets of public goods to yield a genuine breakthrough,

...but capitalism simply can't afford them. Only a society can - and probably only a democracy, capable of reinvesting a surplus in itself.


How many centuries of science, knowledge, universities, libraries, roads, royal societies, and democracy were needed for each one of the crucial moments above?


Every great breakthrough should really be seen as the result of centuries of "public good", of,

effort, knowledge, creativity, time, and insight, finally, suddenly, coming together, culminating in an epiphany, revelation, or insight, which is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

But capitalism isn't meant to do any of the things in that last sentence. And so when we mythologize it as more than it is, or ever can be, at that precise moment, we fail to learn from history.


We create our own towering idol - but that idol will fail us when we need it most, just as in America today, a point I'll return to.

Let's finish up with the third great wave of human progress - the last one.

  • Where was the www invented?


  • Did Jeff Bezos invent it?


  • Marc Andreesen?

Of course not...


Sir Tim Berners-Lee was doing research on what was then called "hypertext" at CERN - a physics lab in Europe. And there he devised a way for "hypertext" to talk to itself. Voila - the www...


Now let's think of all the public goods that had to interweave.


Just like in the last industrial revolution, a physics lab. A university. Libraries, knowledge, science, and all the stuff of the last two waves, too, roads, bridges, squares, democracy - but this time, also electricity grids, computing power, networks, microchips, and so forth. None of that? No internet.


So by now, in the third wave of human progress, larger numbers of greater public goods were interlocking in even more complex and sophisticated ways than ever before. And without that single breakthrough - no Amazon, Google, Apple.

The most that we can say is that capitalism was necessary, but isn't sufficient, for progress.


And the tense matters:

even that's arguable, and I'd say dubious, because Europe has less capitalism, but far more progress, whether higher life expectancy, happiness, democracy, trust, or meaning.

A more sophisticated way to say it would probably be:

capitalism was, once upon a time, perhaps the only workable way to let people enjoy some of the benefits created by great public goods.


But it also came at a steep price - unfairness, exploitation, depletion, misery, meaninglessness, atomization, isolation.


But at this juncture in human history, it might just be obsolete.

Progress probably doesn't need "capitalism" at mega-scale anymore, though it will always need entrepreneurs taking bold risks.


But these are in many ways opposites. Improving life today depends on society investing capital directly in people, which means greater and greater public goods , which can weave together in even more sophisticated and improbable ways - healthcare, education, media, finance, precisely so that dance of integrating together all of yesterday's knowledge, learning, insight, wisdom, truth can go on, in new ways, which reach higher heights.


If people were free from "jobs" at "corporations" (which seem to do precisely nothing meaningful for anyone except create allow a tiny number at the top to amass absurd amounts of fictional paper chits called "money"),

  • Can you imagine what they might create?

  • Discover?

  • Share?

  • Explore?

  • Give to one another?

We don't know...


But the point is to find out - and we'll never get there if the old myth is all that we believe in. We'll end up like America, instead...

The myth says:

"Capitalism saved the world! Hooray! Everyone - let's capitalism!!"

But by now, looking at the sad state of America, you should intuitively sense it's just not true.


Having read all the above, you should know what America did wrong, too. What happens when we tell ourselves the old myth, "Wealth! Yay! Capitalism!"?


We end up like America; we think all we need is capitalism, and so we don't invest in all the great public goods necessary to weave together and spark great breakthroughs, like,

universities, labs, studios, science, literature, the arts, royal societies, libraries, or even roads, bridges, medicine, education,

...and so on - and so poof!


Faster than we think is possible, to our shock and dismay, progress stalls, flatlines, and goes into reverse, even to the point of taking democracy with it, as people's lives fall apart.


Isn't that the story of American collapse in three sentences?

Capitalism didn't save the world. It couldn't even save America. The myth can't be true...

  • Do you see how different the hidden story of human progress is from the myth?


  • How American collapse is itself yet another vivid proof of the true story of human progress - because it teaches us that a society collapses when it believes in a fairy tale instead?

Progress depends on public goods - and without them, it reverses course in just a few short years, exactly like it has in America.

What really saved the world, or at least stopped the wheel humanity revolved upon, which had led nowhere but,

kingdoms, tribes, peasants, war, loot, plunder, and ruin, cycling for endless centuries, which is a better way to put it,

...was "civilization", in the sense that we should think about it:

societies finally learned to reinvest their hard-won surpluses, in more and more sophisticated sets of public goods and institutions, which, gave people (often, literally) the time, energy, spaces, places, tools, and room, to think, create, imagine, rebel, defy, share, give, grow, instead of fighting wars or enslaving their neighbors so this king could get rich this year, and that one the next.

Woven together in more and more interdependent, conjoined, and improbable ways, those public goods, finally, after centuries, led humanity at last, to genuinely life-changing breakthroughs, in wave after pulsing wave of revelation, discovery, and creativity.

It's true that "progress" is about "wealth".


But "wealth" is only as good as the things which "money" denominates - it's not just a handful of trillionaires with mega-mansions full of gaudy loot, while society regresses back to a dark age.


Breakthroughs like chemotherapies, antiobiotics, vaccines, science, art, literature, the world wide web itself, are what genuinely make us "wealthy".


But all these depend on a beautiful, delicate, graceful web of public goods humanity has learned to weave, with great difficulty, over millennia.


The true story of progress is about how all those fragile public goods mesh, interlock, intersect, sparking incandescent, explosive chain reactions of epiphany, spreading in waves across societies, which we'll later call "revolutions" in thought, understanding, and insight, "paradigm shifts".


Tomorrow's breakthroughs come from yesterday's public goods, joined together in improbable, strange, unexpected ways - and history suggests that from starships to clean energy to life extension serums, they always will.

So why do American thinkers keep pushing the tired, old, obviously by now false myth that capitalism equals 'progress'?


The reason American thinkers tell the myth so desperately today is precisely because it's a last-ditch attempt to avoid facing bitter reality.


If they questioned it for even a moment, they'd also have to grapple with the fact that their most cherished belief is a fairy tale - and no one wants to do that in America, if you question capitalism, you're a dangerous heretic - someone to be excommunicated.


No wonder American thinkers never challenge their greatest myth. Who wants to pay that price? The Soviets didn't challenge their myths, either. Bang! They fell, too...

But what happens to us, you and me, if we go on reciting old myths, which the downfall of our very own society tells us simply can't be true, just because they're comforting?


We go blind, just like our wise men.


And while it's perfectly fine for old men in ivory towers to look at burning flames and see a party, not a meltdown, for the rest of us, calling the fires of ignorance enlightenment is somewhere between tragedy and folly.