Economics & the Idea of Progress
Getting with the plan

Adam Smith maintained that the engine of economic progress was the division of labor supported by investment: thus did the wealth of nations grow.  Technological advance was not identified per se.

This admittedly narrow definition of progress went against the grain of the traditional contrarian view, which could only imagine human and natural history as being a falling away from a primordial, pristine act of creation.  That traditional view is now well ensconced in the scientific concept of entropy and the inevitable ‘heat death’ of the universe.  Everyone is surely aware that science takes a very skeptical view of any notion of directed evolutionary progress, despite continuing maverick attempts to find a scientific basis for that very fuzzy notion.

Pockets of entropic disequilibrium will exist, just by the laws of probability.  The fact that we happen to find ourselves in an extreme instance of disequilibrium provides scant grounds for optimism.  That we have been able to cheat the laws of probability for a billion years provides no assurance that we will be able to do so again tomorrow.  This reasoning may be further developed into a cogent doomsday argument suggesting that random observers like you and I will most likely find ourselves in a bubble that is about to burst.  The bubble in this case would be a population bubble, which would also be a breeding ground for other bubbles of a more economic nature.  This is not a train of thought that is conducive to pleasant dreams.

Scientific objectivity, in its allotted three centuries, has not been able to envision a life force.  It is not unreasonable to posit that science is inherently incapable of assimilating such a force since it is likely to have an essential subjective aspect.  If we cannot objectify the very reason for our existence we will be facing a profound challenge to our modern worldview.

My educated guess is that the life force is partially projected as the invisible hand of economics.  We also see it manifested as the Anthropic Principle dictating the design of the universe.  Encompassing both of these aspects is the teleology of the life force, which is pulling us toward our eventual destiny.

The upshot of this alternative view of reality is that if we want to understand economic progress we will need to understand the cosmic plan.  It would appear, however, that the global economy has been progressing in healthy fashion without regard to any alleged plan, cosmic or otherwise.  Although it has been argued that the origin of capitalism is closely tied to the Western prophetic tradition, capitalism has apparently managed to outgrow any such childhood attachments.

For how much longer can we moderns afford to deny something as crucial as the life force?  For how long can we postpone this day of reckoning?  Many factors, however, will have to conspire to awaken us to this reality.  It is unlikely that the economic interests will be at the forefront of what will initially have to be an intellectual and spiritual awakening.

History indicates that the hegemony of an existing worldview can gradually erode over a long period of time before a new worldview gathers sufficient momentum to replace it.  Postmodernism is antipathetic to worldviews of any kind.  It may enjoy a lengthy interregnum before being succeeded by a more positive philosophy.

Nonetheless, the failure of modernism and postmodernism to provide any qualitative accounting for seemingly obvious historical trends ought to be more remarkable than we presently take it to be.

Modernism sees science as just the inevitable accumulation and application of knowledge; inevitable as long as reactionary interests do not actively oppose it.  Modernism is simply an acknowledgment of the existence of the trend.  Futurism extrapolates this trend into the future in a sometimes brutish manner.  The future envisioned by the futurists seems generally devoid of or in contradiction to what most of us would recognize as life.  Certainly that purely technological vision creates a challenge for anyone with a humane concern.  Let us take up this challenge in a subsequent essay.


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rev. 6/21/00