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Was the past better or worse than the present?


In his book Humiliation, my intellectual mentor William Ian Miller argues that at bottom the question that animates every student of history is this: Would it have been better to have lived then than now?

In his Hannah Arendt grave post below, Erik asserts that, subject to the caveat that technology has improved life expectancy, the last 250 years of human history — roughly the modern era — have been largely catastrophic.

I don’t want to argue for a particular conclusion in regard to that question; rather, I’m going to examine how we might go about trying to answer it.

The case for optimism about modernity is pretty straightforward: As I’ve argued before, there isn’t enough general understanding, even among intellectuals, about how radically positive the economic developments of the modern era have been for humanity as a whole. Prior to the modern age — indeed to a great extent prior to the middle of the 20th century — the overwhelming majority of humanity had lived in absolute poverty. “Absolute” here means on the edge of starvation, and/or death from exposure etc. We’re not talking about whether people had indoor plumbing or what have you in other words.

Obviously such calculations are complicated and controversial in various ways; just as obviously the effects of economic modernization in terms of alleviating the most basic forms of human misery have been almost impossible to overestimate.

The other obvious metric that argues for radical improvement is life expectancy. In the US in 1900, life expectancy at birth was 47 years. A person born that year had more than a 20% chance of dying before reaching adulthood, which of course was the single biggest factor in depressing overall life expectancy. Still, it’s important to realize as well that middle aged and elderly people are today immensely healthier in just about every way than they were a century ago, which is why their life expectancies are also far longer than those of similarly aged people at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s a weird streak of technological pessimism/puritanism in American culture on both the right and the left that idealizes the past in regard to health, and imagines that people back then were much healthier than today because of all that outdoor activity and unprocessed food, as opposed to today’s epidemic of channel surfing and Cheetos. This is a wildly false belief, as even the most cursory familiarity with historical public health records would reveal. (One particularly striking illustration of this pessimism is the belief that people who were thin largely because they were malnourished and performed physically exhausting work that required levels of caloric intake that they often couldn’t acquire regularly were somehow healthier than the “victims” of our modern “obesity epidemic.”)

In sum, optimism about modernity will focus on the undeniable fact that humanity is immensely richer and healthier, on average, than it was even a century ago, let alone in the more distant past.

The contrary case is based largely on two forms of pessimism: technological and cultural.

Technological pessimism is essentially the argument that the prophets make in the argument between wizards and prophets in Charles Mann’s excellent book of that title. The prophets look at all this technology and see a combination of long-term radical environmental degradation — climate change being the overwhelmingly most salient but far from the sole example — and increasing capacity for mass destruction via warfare and industrialized genocide.

From this perspective, the modern age combines mass murder on an unprecedented scale with a constant putting off of an environmental bill that is not being paid, which means the payment will be especially catastrophic when it finally comes due.

Cultural pessimism is more amorphous and difficult to define. A few years ago I was teaching Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in a seminar when it suddenly struck me, like I was shot with diamond bullet through my forehead, that Foucault was politically speaking actually a reactionary of the most extreme sort, and that his status as a boogey man of the supposedly radical leftist “postmodernism” infecting academia was a complete misnomer.

Foucault hated modernity with every bone in his body, which is the very essence of the reactionary world view. The reactionary world view is based fundamentally on the idea that the past was much better than the present, because people were happier. And why were they happier? Because they knew their place in an unquestioned and unquestionable social hierarchy that gave their lives meaning and structure, and that specific kind of happiness is much more valuable than the shallower kind of happiness provided by general anesthesia and plentiful food and central air conditioning and the Internet and what have you.

That’s what every reactionary believes in his bones. That’s what fuels contemporary American fascism and contemporary American evangelical Christianity and right wing Catholicism (but I repeat myself).

Ultimately, of course, arguments about whether the past was better or worse than the present can’t be answered empirically, because they’re arguments about the meaning and purpose of human existence. But I do want to note that lurking behind much — not all by any means, but a lot — of technological pessimism is the same reactionary cultural mindset that idealizes a past in which the contemporary liberal secular world view was considered a combination of heresy and insanity.

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