The Future of Progress

Mark Morris, from the series “Two Castles”, 2022


The Future of Progress

Markus Gabriel on Invisible Goods

Photographers from around the world have been accompanying the Russian full-scale military invasion in Ukraine, showing just the tip of the iceberg of the issues affecting thousands of civilians that remain or are forced to flee their home country. Photographer and artist Robin Hinsch is one of them. We see him capturing the horror and violence through a veil of calmness effervescent to the recurring events in different cities he manages to get to: bombings, trains departing, the faces of those witnessing the war. Hinsch is based in Hamburg, Germany. His practice focuses mainly on social-economic and political issues, meticulously applying methodologies that convert war photography into intuitive storytelling. His work has seen him travel to various countries like Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria, China, Russia, India, Uganda and many more. His work is widely published, both nationally and internationally. Since 2016, he is an elected member of the German Photographic Academy.

Markus Gabriel on Invisible Goods

War is back in Europe – or it was never really gone. Did the West choose to forget that war is a reality and might always be?

Putin’s Russia has been raging wars for decades. And it is remarkable that people have forgotten about Syria. Governments have been living under the illusion that there is no war and there are no geopolitics. I take this to be moral progress of sorts: Governments don't want politics to be geopolitics. But that's just us, a provincial fact about the so-called West. Now we are confronted with – and confused by – the fact that Putin or Xi Jinping are not at all impressed by our desire to live in a world without imperialism.

In many ways, globalization might be seen as a continuation of historic economic dependencies. Have we ever exited the age of imperialism?

The social inequalities and crises connected with globalization need to be criticized – but there is a gigantic difference between engaging in war crimes and taking over a country and unjustly repressing the economic activity of others, unfair trade deals or neoliberal exploitation. What Putin is doing is morally worse than our exploitative economic system. They both have horrible consequences. The shock is that this war of aggression doesn't make us morally good.

A world in which you have to die for the ideal of democracy is not a great world.

This war is also a crisis of the so-called West.

There is no such thing as the West – in my opinion, it is long gone. For example, Japan could either be the West or the South or the North, and it would be Eurocentric to call my Japanese colleagues Western. They are Eastern by all standards. And is Brazil the West? Or Chile? I think this category is flawed. If you look closer at what you mean by the West, it's really just American consumer capitalism. And this is already a decaying global phenomenon.

Democracy and capitalism were seen as a sort of twins – does such a narrative hold up in the context of this war?

Neoliberalism – different from classical liberalism – is perfectly compatible with authoritarian and non-democratic regimes. In fact, it can be a danger to freedom. When we worry about the end of democracy, it is intimately linked with neoliberalism which actively undermines democracy.

What does all of this mean for the notion of progress?

Not all progress is good. There is technological progress – and part of it are the Russian missiles. In my thinking, I focus on moral progress. For example, slavery has always been a moral wrongdoing, but it was not recognized as such until the moral effects became visible to a sufficiently large group. This makes one thing clear: We need more than just democracy, we need democracy together with a certain value system.

Which should not come as a surprise.

However, we are very much unprepared for this situation. This is because we were all hoping for some overarching social structure – typically the government or what we call the state – to take care of us. And now it turns out we have to take care of ourselves. It is what we call in enlightenment thinking “Mündigkeit”. In the context of the war in Ukraine this also means that we have to rethink our commitments. In concrete terms: What am I willing to die for?

A moment of reckoning.

A world in which you have to die for the ideal of democracy is not a great world. Fortunately, I did not ever have to decide whether I would want to die for the idea of freedom. This gives the concept itself a new meaning: Freedom means the basic existence of a democratic rule of law. Freedom means that no one will enter my house. Freedom does not mean that I can buy a new Mercedes. It now means that no one can just shoot me in the head and get away with it. For this reason, democracy has to be liberal democracy and that requires strong value commitments, for instance, to the idea of human dignity and, this, to universal human rights and duties.

We need an economic system where goodness can be morally valued. And we can see that such a system is coming into existence.

Were economic aspects of freedom illusory?

We need to recouple moral and economic progress – this is part of the idea of the New Enlightenment. I don’t want people to feel guilty about wealth. I want prosperity for everybody, a wealth production that is not automatically tied to the destruction of the planet, exploitation or an unjust division of labor. The solution should not be to get rid of prosperity – but associate prosperity with completely different measures.

What would that look?

We need to develop an economic system where goodness can be morally valued – and we can see that such a system is coming into existence. We need to start by focusing on the form of progress and trying to turn this into an economy – what we might call an economy of progress or a very progressive economy. We need to recognize the existence of invisible goods, for instance, the happiness of meeting a friend. That's a much greater good than a new car. Ethics is also about gaining that self-knowledge.

Do you see this moment as holding potential for meaningful change?

It sounds like Utopia right now, but I do think that there are these moments of history where positive social change based on moral progress can actually happens. However, I wish that our human fellows in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere would not have to suffer so terribly from a war of aggression and a horribly repressive dictatorship. There is absolutely no justification for Russia’s war of aggression, even if we can all learn something from it about our own commitments.

Markus Gabriel holds the Chair in Epistemology, Modern, and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn and is the director of the program “The Foundations of Value and Values” at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

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