The Price of Progress

Back around the turn of the 20th century, all advanced-thinking goodpersons were worried that the human race was devolving.  The classic literary expression of this fear was H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.  Wells, a Socialist, thought he was writing a vicious critique of the English class system.  It’s also that, but more importantly, it’s a serious meditation on the dysgenic effects of plenty.  We, as a species, simply aren’t built for permanent caloric surplus.

Wells’s Eloi are like little children… autistic children.  An early, shocking scene shows the Time Traveler saving one of them from drowning.

It happened that, as I was watching some of the little people bathing in a shallow, one of them was seized with cramp and began drifting downstream. The main current ran rather swiftly, but not too strongly for even a moderate swimmer. It will give you an idea, therefore, of the strange deficiency in these creatures, when I tell you that none made the slightest attempt to rescue the weakly crying little thing which was drowning before their eyes.

The other Eloi barely seem to realize that Weena is drowning, which is bad enough.  Worse is the fact that they’re too physically weak to save her even if they want to.  Even worse, is the fact that they can’t even be bothered to try.  They’re so completely creatures of the moment that Weena’s peril doesn’t even register.

This, Wells suggests, is what permanent plenty does to us.  Which, of course, sets up the worst revelation: That the Morlocks are actually farming the Eloi for food.  The Time Traveler understands this.  The Eloi don’t, because they can’t.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that modern life has a strong Eloifying effect.  I wrote “autistic children” for a reason.  So many modern behavioral symptoms simply make no sense, except as our basic monkey hardware short-circuiting.  We’re built for a high-threat, resource-scarce environment.  To function properly, we need a certain level of stress (called eustress, e.g. the constructive stress of weighlifting that causes muscle growth).  If we don’t get it, we either freak out and manufacture some (the whole litany of First World Problems)… or the whole system shorts out and shuts down (autism spectrum disorders).

Worse yet, all our institutions are built to accommodate creatures such as we were, but no longer are.  The social contract theory of government is the most obvious example, but it applies to all aspects of social organization.  The Soviet system’s main problem, for instance, wasn’t anything so highfalutin’ as “lack of freedom.”  Read up on the New Soviet Man, then look around at the large and growing American underclass.  What Lenin Stalin dreamed of giving to the slaves proletariat of Magnitogorsk, Phil Knight and Steve Jobs has given to the homeboys of Baltimore.  They’re perfectly happy to let the government run their lives for them, so long as their iPhones get an update and their Air Jordans a redesign every few years.

(As the lifestyle of the American nomenklatura is both obvious and enraging, let’s spare our blood pressure and move on).

“Freedom,” indeed, is an all-but-meaningless concept in a land of perpetual plenty.  What’s the point of doing things for yourself, when everything you could ever want is provided to you?  I’m seriously asking, because I promise you this: No one under the age of 40 has ever given it a passing thought.  I’ve taught a lot of history to a lot of undergrads, and I’ve never once seen the light go on when talking about stuff like the American Revolution.  It just doesn’t compute on some fundamental level.  The colonies were peaceful and prosperous.  They had everything they could ever materially want.  What the fuck were they so worked up about?

Worse yet, “effectively meaningless” becomes “completely meaningless” when you throw in the state’s surveillance capacity.  1984 is a great polemic that everyone should read, but as a novel it’s shit.  The whole plot revolves around… can you remember?  An old, blank notebook made of fine paper that Winston Smith finds in an antique shop when he’s out browsing in a prole part of town.  He’s only able to write in it because there’s a small corner of his room that is out of the telescreen’s range.  Both are necessary plot contrivances, but both are ludicrous — no minimally self-respecting totalitarianism would’ve tolerated either.  A totalitarianism with Big Brother’s level of tech would automatically flag an Outer Party member going into a prole area, or not being in full view at all times.

Even more ludicrous is Big Brother’s belief that he has to be oppressive at all.  To be fair to George Orwell, the actual totalitarianisms of his time shared this belief, too.  Josef Goebbels poured untold millions into the Reich Culture Chamber, which forbade and censored and cranked out all kinds of heavy-handed propaganda.  What he should’ve done, of course, was let the glitterati’s natural self-righteousness kick in.  Hollywood’s deliriously happy to propagandize for free — indeed, as box office returns for the latest batch of SJW agitprop confirms, they’re more than happy to pay for the privilege.  So, too, will the Junior Volunteer Thought Police, aka Faceberg and Twatter.  If you recruit, train, and pay an NKVD goon, you’ve just given him (what he sees as) three great reasons to gripe about you.  Let him act like he’s doing you a favor, though, and he’ll do twice the work, for more hours, for free, and never utter a bad word about you….

See what I mean?  In times of permanent surplus, there’s only fake drama and autism.  Homo economicus is a real thing, kameraden, and we are him.  We’ve “evolved,” god help us all.  Our social arrangements will evolve with us eventually.

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24 thoughts on “The Price of Progress

  1. Pickle Rick

    To be fair, the homeboys of Baltimore and all the other ‘hoods couldn’t run a government on their own, and I think their marginally more intelligent leaders know this, which is why they’re continually chasing white peoples around with their hands out for gibs. At least in slabery days, Massa got some useful work out of them in return for housing and feeding them.

  2. Maus

    Perhaps eustress is the source of leadership drive. As a kid in the 70s, you either excelled as a jock or an academic. But you strove to excel. There were no trophies for everybody. Everyone participated in sports because it promoted health and comradery; but dammit, you wanted at least to earn a varsity letter. Ironically, academics was much more cutthroat. There can be only one person at the top of the class. Long before the term frenemy became vogue, one mingled with peers who needed to be cultivated for elevated conversation and generating ideas, but also needed to be kept at arms length lest they win the prize you’d set your own mind on winning. Competition ruled the day. Now, everyone is special and everyone wins and nothing comes from it but insipidity and failure. I pity today’s youth.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield

    I get what you’re saying. I even agree, to an extent. But I have a lot of caveats.

    “What’s the point of doing things for yourself, when everything you could ever want is provided to you? I’m seriously asking, because I promise you this: No one under the age of 40 has ever given it a passing thought.”

    Maybe no one under the age of 40 that you encounter. But I run into young people with drive not infrequently. Young people are still joining the armed forces. I fully acknowledge the TREND, but the generalization is seriously flawed.

    You talk about plot contrivances in 1984. Hows thi’s one; the Totalitarian State depends on a fairly complex technology working almost all of the time; the telescreen that not only receives but transmits. Totalitarian states are notoriously awful at high tech, and worse at keeping things repaired. What percentage of the telescreens WORK?

    I have other nits to pick, but have to go.

    1. Maus

      The telescreen is a McGuffin. In order for the totalitarian panopticon to succeed, all that is required is for the plebs to believe the screen works, not that it actually sees and hears all. To reinforce the proper belief you simply need to periodically engage in some brutal theatrics. An arrest accomplished by sensational tactics, followed by a spectacular show trial featuring evidence that the evil perpetrators were forestalled because of the unblinking vigilance of the telescreen. Alexa never sleeps, Citizen; so that you can sleep in peace! Rinse, lather, repeat.

    1. contrariandutchman

      “modern potlatch”, not a bad definition for the status game among goodwhites to take from badwhites so they can give to themselves and browns

  4. contrariandutchman

    “What’s the point of doing things for yourself, when everything you could ever want is provided to you?”

    If everything you could ever want can be simply given to you you do not want much and severely lack imagination. Even the homeboys want many things they are not given (and with a tendency for stupidity and brutality shoot each other up in a botch edattempt to get them).

    Permanent surplus is definitionally impossible, provided there are still people with some imagination left to want more/better.

    1. Maus

      It’s not a question of what you want so much as a question of how badly do you want it. I am going to go out on a limb and presume that none of the 14 Readers wants a pair of $300 sneakers enough to shoot someone and take them from the shootee. That such a thing happens often enough to be reported in the media is a commentary on the value of diversity itself. But the reason it gets reported is to bolster the liberal fallacy that if we just give the disadvantaged youths these shoes, the shooting will stop. How droll.

      1. Severian Post author

        The $300 sneakers are a perfect illustration of the “manufactured stress” I’ve been talking about. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to find it unjust that the factory hands who actually make shoes can’t afford shoes. Marx (et al) made that point all the time, and they were right. It’s obvious and unobjectionable that this situation is bad.

        Where Marx et al went wrong was in assuming that “The People” will be satisfied with simple, generic “shoes.” I’ve written about this “bread, shoes, and shit” view of life here many times — the Old Bolshies assumed that all The People needed were three hots, a cot, and a toilet. When everyone had these, and no one had more, we’d have Utopia.

        Actual humans (as opposed to “The People”) simply don’t work like that. Give all humans bread, shoes, and shit, and they’ll start killing each other for different shoes, or an extra ration of bread, or the distinction of being first in line at the latrine. Something, anything, to mark status, because that’s how we do.

        The problem of prosperity is that ALL status markers are artificial in that sense. A man will kill another man for his shoes if he doesn’t have any; a man in a society where everyone has shoes will go for genocide, because he’s bored.

  5. gwood

    I’ve always assumed that the answer to Fermi’s Paradox was that intelligence is an evolutionary dead end.

    1. The Right Doctor

      Long before I woke up racially, I read a sci-fi novel called Evolution by Baxter. In it, intelligence doesn’t make the cut. This was a big red pill for me in a different way but it made perfect sense: what is adaptive and beneficial in one environment – red in tooth and claw competition – may not be beneficial in a world where our only competition is each other.

    2. contrariandutchman

      Intelligence as such seems fat too useful a tool to be a dead end as such. But is intelligence coupled with high ingroup preference or with outgoup preference? Is it coupled with a strong drive to have children or not?

      We are likely on the cusp of a major evolutionary selection event that will cull populations with high outgroup preference and/or low desire for children. The most evolutionary successful humans after will have high intelligence as well as strong ingroup preference and a strong desire for children.

  6. Anonymous White Male

    “Hollywood’s deliriously happy to propagandize for free —”

    Possibly true. However, I’m pretty sure that if you were able to audit their bank accounts, you’d find income from partisan sources with an ideology to push. Have you noticed that the most vocal retards from Hollyweird are all past their expiration date and do not have the box office clout they used to? Sure, you get some Hare Lipped Phoenix types that virtue signal at the Oscars, but that could just be quid pro Joe for winning the Oscar. Admittedly, the propaganda they vomit forth gets them free publicity, and any publicity is good publicity in LA. But, almost every ex-star is in debt and has to keep the income treadmill going. If you’re, say, Alyssa Milano, that 2nd boob job is not going to pay for itself.

  7. ryan

    Sorry to nitpick: In 1984 the Party had pegged Winston as a thought criminal before the book started. The diary was a plant, he was never out of view of the screens. They were always just fucking with him for the sake of their love of fucking with people.

      1. ryan

        To me the unrealistic thing about 1984 is the idea that a societies could be ruled by that extraordinarily evil sort of people for such a long time. Tamerlanes and Berias are aberrations, they come up from time to time but their evil dies with them. After Stalin died one of the first things Khrushchev et al. thought was “don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but I think this means we get to stop disappearing people and shut down the death camps.” Even best Korea morphed into a god-emperor worshiping society. Rule for the sake of torturing and terrorizing the ruled is just not ordinary human nature.

        1. Vizzini

          I don’t remember how long the society in 1984 was supposed to have existed, but North Korea has existed for decades as an Orwellian totalitarian state.

          Still, I agree that Brave New World was probably closer to the mark than 1984, at least for Western societies.

  8. MBlanc46

    Severian: There’s a guy on the Internet who focuses on status-seeking as the driver of human behavior. I believe that he refers to his theory as bioleninism. He stopped posting much, so I’ve not been to his site lately, but there is certainly something to this view. It’s certainly the case that women are never satisfied, but we men surely have our status drives as well.

    1. Severian Post author

      Can you send me the link?

      “Bioleninism,” eh? Catchy. Makes me think I need a catchy nickname for my “prosperity is lethal” thing I keep banging on about. Social Malthusianism, maybe?

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