We tend to take for granted that human progress is a thing. Plato, famously, argued that humanity is regressing, going from a supposed Golden Age (perhaps the ‘State of Nature’ described by Hobbes, Rousseau, and others) all the way through Bronze and worse. This narrative helped the Christians, who also accepted in general that the past (Garden of Eden) was glorious, while the present is bad, and the future is worse (Judgement Day). It was during the late medieval times that this perception started to shift, as advances in medicine, science, philosophy, technology, etc. led to various developments and new found hope.
Hegel supported the view that human progress is positive, even if knowledge itself is only appreciated a posteriori (“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”), but his ideas were subsequently taken by Marx who took the whole notion to the next level. Darwin, a contemporary of Marx, with his theory of Evolution, helped proliferate views that progress is inevitable: Just as in the biological kingdom, so in the human, evolution and progress are natural tendencies. Ever since Marx, many philosophers have guessed that progress must be a de facto condition of society.
The experiences of the WW2 certainly put a brief dent to such unqualified optimism. But from the ashes of the most destructive world war in human history, a new optimism emerged: Human Rights. The general consensus is that post-1945 is the Human Rights era, defined by globalization, the spread of international institutions and global governance. Even through the worse moments of the Cold War, there was a general desire to appear ‘human’ to others, and to appeal to notions of common humanity. It would seem that idea(l)s of human progress were being vindicated, as the 20th century saw human rights spread to millions of new subjects across the world.
When Fukuyama declared the End of History in the 1990s, he certainly believed that this river current cannot be reversed. But Fukuyama did not heed Hegel’s words, nor did he wait for any of the dust to settle. His hubris did not allow him to see that history is not a progress, but a narration; not an inevitable ‘going forward’, but a series of events which we contextualize. Sadly for him, the dusk is here, and in 2016 we see signs that the lauded ‘progress’ that so many philosophers of recent centuries wished for or believed in is but a mere vagary.
There is no such thing as ‘progress’, and ‘human rights’ is nothing but a specific part of history — not an inevitable reality, or a pre-destined stage of our species’ evolution. The only thing that truly exists is Politics, the endless struggle between those who are everything and those who are nothing. It is within this endless struggle for Truth and Being that we operate in, and the pendulum does not simply swing in one way, but goes back again, pulled by the gravity of everyday human actions. History cannot end, and herein is the fallacy: we cannot assume that things will get better. We cannot assume that human rights, human achievements, human destiny will manifest in better and better ways. We cannot predict the future, and we can only tell the past as we understand it, and not as it was and had been.
At the turn of 2016, the world for many is a darker place. Human Rights are on the retreat everywhere (see the series of news articles I have curated for you below), and now just as much as ever we need to be vigilant, we need to be political. In Frederick Douglass’ words, that magnificent visionary man whom I love, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress” — “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.
Everyone, have a Happy New Year, and may 2017 be an interesting year. May it be a year that we steer this ship back on track; not because it is pre-destined to happen, but because we are not ready yet to give up on our journey as a species. Wish you all happiness, love, and fulfillment!