The end of progress

Is the idea of progress dead? Alain Finkielkraut, the French philosopher, says that as we approach the millennium, our faith in progress remains undimmed, while progress itself has died.
October 19, 1996

Warsaw, in the 1920s. The young Isaac Bashevis Singer walks by a butcher's stall. Struck by the display in the window, he finds himself gazing at the beef sausages on their hooks, and offers them this silent oration: "There was a time when you were living creatures; you have suffered and now you know no pain. The tortures that were inflicted upon you and your desperate efforts to escape them have left no trace. Is there a tombstone somewhere in the universe on which it is written that a cow named Kvyatule allowed itself to be milked for eleven years? And that one day, when its udders dried up, it was brought to the slaughterhouse and a blessing was said before its throat was cut?"

Singer pursues the reverie. "Is there such a thing as true compensation for our pains? Is there a paradise for all the cows, chickens and pigs that have been massacred, the frogs that have been crushed, the fish that have been snatched out of the sea, the Jews tortured by Pietlioura or shot by Bolsheviks, the millions who died at Verdun?"

Time has passed since this silent oration, and all the cattle of the earth can only envy Kvyatule, the poor Polish cow to whom Singer offered a form of burial. Singer's cow was not a mere commodity, it was an animal, it had a name; it had been allowed to roam freely in the open fields until the ripe old age of eleven; it had been spared bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE); a ritual had marked its death.

In order to maximise productivity, today's anonymous cattle, deprived of their existence from the time they are born, rarely live more than 21 months. In order to speed up their development and their entry into the human food chain, it has been deemed appropriate to feed them meat-based meal. Moreover, a hormone, discovered by reputable laboratories and already in use in the US and in eastern Europe, could now radically increase milk production in cows, thus allowing us to severely limit their numbers.

At the time of Singer's musings, it was still possible to argue that animal cruelty, such as that inflicted upon Kvyatule, was the price to pay for human progress. In this "spirit of compassion," we even wished for the elimination of the remnants of archaism in rural life. The modern will to power, the development of instrumental reason, man's domination of nature and his contempt for reality, this was all justified by the wonderful dream of alleviating human suffering.

Today, we see no end to technological progress, which we no longer master. We can only manage its consequences, and we manage them so badly that this progress threatens both nature and mankind. An increasingly powerful technology and a complete submission to cost-efficiency are threatening our countryside; and our cities are dying with the expansion of suburbs. We are governed by a rationality which is becoming less and less reasonable. This rationality has acquired a life of its own, losing on its way the project which had given it meaning. We are still marching forward, but with no other aim than this aimless race.

Today, there is a dramatic gap between the political discourse of both left and right, which seeks to reconcile people with technological progress, and the political responsibility of our generation. The aim is no longer to rebuild the world, but, as Camus put it in his Nobel prize speech of 1957, "to prevent it from disintegrating."

Yet, despite the urgency, Singer's metaphysical rebellion stands no more chance of being heard in our end-of-century globalised world than in 1920s Warsaw. Nothing is further removed from our modern sensibility than the common destiny which unites the cow forgotten in the beef, the frog run over by the distracted driver, the victims of pogroms or the fallen at Verdun.

Since then, an enormous industrial massacre has replaced the amateurish brutalities committed by sloppy torturers. And the authors of this unprecedented crime loved nature and animals. True, they preferred the roar of great beasts leaping on their prey to the innocent eyes of peaceful cud-chewers. But Heidegger was critical of technology and this did not prevent him from joining the Nazi party. The attack on technology is often intimately linked, nolens volens, to the worst inhumanity. This perverse logic, which links the glorification of nature to barbarism, prevents us from taking Singer's melancholic thoughts too seriously. Spurred by the tragedies of this century, humanism has come to justify common inhumanity. Faith in progress has survived long after the death of progress.